New research by Amnesty International has exposed how the Nepali government’s failure to crack down on recruitment agencies which charge illegal fees for jobs abroad is leaving migrant workers trapped in a vicious cycle of debt and exploitation.
The organization found that almost two-thirds of Nepali migrant workers who responded to a survey, carried out in Nepal and Malaysia and published today, had paid excessive, illegal recruitment fees.
Nepali migrant workers are being systematically and mercilessly set up.James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Global Issues Programme
“Nepali migrant workers are being systematically and mercilessly set up. Forced to take out loans to pay the huge fees recruitment agencies charge them to work abroad, they are left so indebted that they have no choice but to stay in jobs which often turn out to be low-paid or dangerous,” said James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Programme.
“The Nepali government’s weak enforcement of the law is playing straight into the hands of extortionists and loan sharks. Migrant workers all too often end up trapped in the soul-destroying situation of working abroad for years simply to pay off the huge, often illegal fees they were charged to take the job. Tackling this exploitative industry is a matter of urgency.”
A cycle of debt and deception
The vast majority (88%) of participants in Amnesty International’s mobile phone survey of 414 Nepali migrant workers reported that they paid fees to agents for their jobs overseas. Because these fees are so high, the majority had to borrow more than half the sum from village moneylenders, placing them in debt.
Workers’ calculations about how they will repay these loans are often derailed by unpaid wages or other forms of labour exploitation. More than half of the workers (53%) surveyed said that they received lower monthly salaries than what was promised to them by recruitment agents.
In July 2015 the Nepali government introduced the “Free Visa, Free Ticket” policy, which reduced the maximum fee workers could be charged to NPR 10,000 ($96) in response to local and international pressure.
But the policy is clearly not being properly enforced. In June 2017 Amnesty International released a report, Turning People into Profits, which found that recruitment agencies were still freely exploiting migrants by charging above the limit.
Only one in five (20%) of workers surveyed by Amnesty International said the government was implementing the policy.
The new survey adds to this picture of country-wide exploitation, which is flourishing under an often indifferent government.
Recruitment agencies who charge illegal fees often go to great lengths to evade scrutiny, including sending middlemen to collect the money rather than receiving it directly themselves. In Amnesty International’s survey, 90% of workers who had paid a recruitment fee did not receive an accurate receipt from agents. This makes it very difficult for them to file legal cases against unscrupulous agents and claim this money back.
Disturbingly, some of these recruiters – who trap workers into bonded labour by saddling them with huge debts – market Nepali workers to prospective foreign clients by highlighting how unlikely they are to leave their jobs.
Amnesty International reviewed and analysed 100 Nepali recruitment websites, and found that Nepali workers are frequently advertised with descriptions such as “loyal” and “completely dedicated to work even in adverse situations”.
The Nepali government must do more to protect migrant workers, who make unimaginable sacrifices by leaving their loved ones for years to work overseas, and in return are cheated and exploited.James Lynch
In November this year Amnesty International interviewed four Nepali workers whose agents deceived them about their working conditions. They were told they would work in a factory in Malaysia making labels for plastic bottles; but instead, they were sent to a steel manufacturer and asked to perform dangerous jobs without training.
After witnessing several on-the-job injuries, the men tried to leave but the company would not pay for their tickets home or return their passports.
Heavily indebted after paying US $1,200 in recruitment fees, the men said they were trapped, scared, and unable to return home without money to buy plane tickets.
The men were only able to return to Nepal in mid-2017 after fleeing the company and getting their families to take out new loans to fund their journey back home. They are now in Nepal, considering how to pay off the vast debts they have accrued. Migrating again is likely to be their only viable option.
Amnesty International is urging the Nepali government and businesses to do more to tackle the corruption that is rampant in the recruitment industry in Nepal.
Until companiestake action, they are reinforcing the debt trap that is destroying so many lives in Nepal.James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Global Issues Programme
“The Nepali government must do more to protect migrant workers, who make unimaginable sacrifices by leaving their loved ones for years to work overseas, and in return are cheated and exploited. A good start would be to penalize recruitment agencies that are not complying with the law,” James Lynch said.
“Companies who employ migrant workers in the Gulf and Malaysia directly or through their suppliers or subcontractors also have a responsibility. They need to take steps to prevent exploitative labour recruitment, and ensure that migrants in their supply and contracting chains who have paid recruitment fees are reimbursed. Until they take action, they are reinforcing the debt trap that is destroying so many lives in Nepal.”
Amnesty International conducted mobile phone surveys in Malaysia with groups of migrants working in different sectors, as well as in Nepal with migrants who had returned home after undertaking foreign employment in Malaysia or Gulf countries.