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Sunita Tamang sold her jewellery and borrowed from her neighbours to make the journey from her village in the shadow of the Himalayas to the parched heat of Kuwait.
She hoped to raise money for her five children and ailing husband by working as a maid for at least six times the average wage back home in Nepal.
“When my husband fell ill, we needed money,” she said. “I thought: ‘I can earn, I’m healthy.’ I went so I could educate the children. I returned with nothing.”
Ms Tamang never received a penny. Instead she became one of thousands of people trafficked from Nepal and elsewhere to the rich nations of the Gulf.
In case after case relatively unsophisticated men and women from poor backgrounds are persuaded to make the trip, only to take on large and mysterious debts and then find themselves at the mercy of the employers who sponsor their visas.
“It is like 21st century slavery,” says Manju Gurung, a founding member of Pourakhi, an organisation of returning Nepali women. “Once you enter your sponsor’s house, all passports and ID will be confiscated in the name of protection. The problems will start from there.”
Such stories have become increasingly common amid a global surge in migration that has transformed countries such as Nepal, where remittances now account for almost a third of economic output, up from just 2 per cent in 2001. The 2011 Nepali census recorded 7.3 per cent of the population — some 1.9m people — as ‘absent’ from the country.
For its 2015 Seasonal Appeal, the Financial Times is working in partnership with Stop The Traffik, an organisation that raises awareness about human trafficking, a trade that habitually preys upon migrants.
Women working as nannies or as maids are among the most vulnerable groups, existing in a legal shadowland without proper scrutiny of their conditions. Such jobs are subject to abuse worldwide: a quarter of all countries have no legislation to protect domestic workers’ rights.
Most migrants from Nepal are men, toiling on construction sites or in other heavy and sometimes perilous work, drawn in by countries such as Malaysia, Dubai and Qatar. But the employment agencies and recruiters that dispatch them have also recently set their sights on the demand for housemaids.
What sucked in Sunita Tamang was the combination of poverty in her mountainous district of Sindhupalchowk and the pitch made by an employment agency representative who came with the offer of work.
After a month of working for a family in Kuwait, she asked to be paid. She was told her boss had sent the money to the employment agency.
The agency informed her in turn that she had to repay the cost of her trip to the Gulf — her recruiter in Nepal had probably pocketed the $550 she had given him.
“The office said: ‘They paid a lot for you and you have to earn it,’” Ms Tamang recounted. She was not even able to call her husband to see if any money had been sent home.
Six months later, she fled to Nepal’s embassy in Kuwait, where she stayed nearly two further months before being flown home. (She is unsure who paid for the ticket.) “I came back with nothing in hand,” she says angrily.
Thousands of Nepali women who travel to the region manage to make some savings. But many, like Ms Tamang, endure highly exploitative working conditions.
Pulmaya Shreshtra, now 43, worked in Kuwait for almost three years as maid for a family with four young children, routinely enduring 19-hour days.
“Even when I had a fever, I couldn’t take a day off,” she recalls. “One time, I hadn’t ironed the clothes as fast as they wanted and the man threatened to hit me with the hot iron.”
Without local language skills, social networks — or indeed, access to their impounded passports — many such women in effect become trapped.
The plight of migrant female workers is compounded by the six Gulf countries’ so-called “kafala” system, which ties foreign workers to the employer who sponsored their visas and prohibits workers from changing jobs.
Gulf governments say the system is needed to regulate the tidal wave of migrant labour, which accounts for about half of the region’s 50m residents.
Kuwait is trying to reform, passing a domestic workers law this year to establish a 12-hour working day, a weekly day off and 30 days of paid leave a year, although enforcement mechanisms have yet to be finalised.
While Saudi Arabia has also introduced a law seeking to protect such workers, it still received a complaint from India in October about the ‘brutal treatment’ of a 55-year-old Indian housemaid, who accused her employer of chopping off her arm when she attempted to escape. The Saudi authorities say she injured herself while climbing out of a window.
As of last month the Philippine Embassy in Dubai had 16 runaway maids sheltering at its premises.
Many campaigners say the problems of female Nepali migrants have been exacerbated by restrictions on travelling abroad for work. These increase costs — as bribes are paid out to officials and trips rerouted through India to prevent emigration checks — and push the trade underground.
The Nepali government has wrestled with the issue: in a change of policy this year it gave dozens of agencies authorisation to place women in domestic service jobs in the Gulf.
Ms Gurung of Pourakhi, the Nepali women’s group, argues the state should not seek to stop the flow of job seekers but instead help women to migrate more safely, since the financial pressures driving them abroad show no sign of abating. “They have go to feed the child, to pay a loan or for the betterment of the family,” she said. “They don’t have any other option.”
To find out more about the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit Stop the Traffik.
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