In the second part of Martin Schibbye’s reportage series from Nepal, we meet hotel owners and construction workers who have made it out of poverty thanks to opportunities in Qatar, and those who are on their way there, attracted by the promise of quick cash.
Av Martin Schibbye 4 oktober, 2022
This is the second part in a series of articles from Nepal. Read part one here, and three here.
The line follows a seemingly never-ending brick wall that surrounds the passport office in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Through the shiny metal gates, a pine tree ally and different buildings are visible. The morning sun is really strong and at the end of the line about 100 people have found shade underneath a green plastic roof.
For Suresha Nepal, a six-hour wait is just over and he is practically dancing out with his new passport. Now all that’s left is waiting for his younger brother who is still inside.
“I’ve worked construction in Doha since 2013. Qatar is a beautiful country with a good government,” he says happily.
The upcoming trip to the Gulf will be his fourth two-year stint, and he doesn’t think anyone standing in line has anything to worry about.
“My younger brother does not have to be scared. He’s also going to work in a shopping mall, so nothing dangerous there. Qatar is a great country. The best!”
Suresha views the 2022 Soccer World Cup as an excellent opportunity for more of his fellow countrymen to get jobs. He is also looking forward to the actual soccer cup.
Before we part ways, he proudly shows me his ID cards from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, flashing them open like a poker hand. He’s worked there too.
“Of those countries, I chose Qatar. That’s the best,” says Suresha Nepal and taps on this ID issued in Doha.
Leaning against the brick wall next to him, wearing black jacket and a silver ring in one ear, is 28-year-old Durga Bahadur Dahal. As a first-timer, he’s listening intently to everything that’s being said.
The afternoon traffic is picking up and in order to hear each other, me, the interpreter and Druga Bahadur Dahal walk to a Thami café nearby.
“I am worried what it will be like,” Durga Bahadur Dahal admits. “Worried about the heat and worried about getting paid.”
He’s left two children younger than 7 back home in the village Bhochbur. Had there been a choice, he would have stayed with his family.
He recently paid a recruiter $1,500 dollar for a job as a tile installer with a construction company in Qatar.
“The pandemic and the ‘lockdown’ we’ve had in Nepal made me decide to head abroad,” he says. “I looked for a ‘decent job’ in Qatar for a while before I took this one.”
Durga Bahadur Dahal has heard about all the accidents in connection with the World Cup.
“I am aware and I know that I have to take safety seriously when I’m working,” he says. “If am careful and don’t take any unnecessary risks, everything will be fine.”
His flight is in three days and he is prepared, packed and got a new haircut, shaved neck and bangs. He’s spending the remaining time bidding family and friends farewell. They are also worried and have heard about the heat all the accidents.
“To be unemployed poses another type of potential tragedy,” Durga Bahadur Dahal says. “My son is six years old and still have not attended a single day in school. I want to be able to afford that.”
When he has made enough money, he wants to move his family to Kathmandu.
On the table lay his phone, an old model from the early 2000s. The button sound is on and the screen illuminates green as he sends and receives texts. Behind him at the coffee shop is a poster that advertises bus tours to Chitwan, a national park. For most of the world, the idea of Nepal is a country dependent on tourism. But it’s only seven percent of its GDP, remittances from abroad account for nearly 40 percent.
Durga Bahadur Dahal says that his family wants him to go and that his whole village supports the decision.
“I have borrowed money from the village council and mortgaged my parents farmland, if I don’t pay back $1,350 within five months, they will lose my forefathers’ land.”
The job in Qatar isn’t just about making money but also about avoiding a catastrophe. I he doesn’t go they risk loosing the land that has provided for the family for generations.
“I have no choice,” says Durga Bahadur Dahal.
On the table are copies of his visa and job contract in a green, plastic binder. Everything is stamped and signed.
Nepal recently started checking those who leave as migrant workers and created job contracts and made salaries public information to prevent recruiters from scamming migrant workers.
A quick search of Durga Bahadur Dahal’s passport number on the Nepali Foreign Ministry website, shows that he will work for G.S Employment Service Ltd and his monthly salary is $270, which means that he can just about pay off the loan to his village – if he stays healthy and saves every bit of it.
There are no margins.
It says bricklayer on his contract.
“Bricklayer?” he laughs. “It has to be a mistake, I don’t know how to lay brick.”
Durga Bahadur Dahal admits that he paid the recruiter, which is illegal and shouldn’t be needed since Qatar removed the visa fee a while back. In addition to the recruiter, he also paid two middlemen to get the job.
“Nobody told me I didn’t have to do that.”
Our interpreter calls the recruiter and introduces himself as Durga Bahadur Dahal’s brother. The woman who answers is suspicious and questions the call. When the interpreter tells her that there is no a visa fee to get into Qatar, she says that’s not true. And when the interpreter threatens to call the office of labor affairs and report the recruitment firm, she hangs up.
Durga Bahadur Dohol looks even more worried now. In addition to what awaits him in Qatar, he has now ruffled the feathers of the people who have his money, money he has borrowed.
The interpreter takes down the cellphone number to Nepal’s Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security, from the government website and tells him to call the minister directly if there’s a problem. Durga Bahadur Dahal gathers the green plastic sleeve and leaves the interpreters office. His plan is to be back home in December 2023.
“If I get a chance to see one World Cup game, I will of course do it. Brazil is my team,” he says before he disappears down the busy street.
The foyer of Hotel Shramic is packed. Groups of young Nepalese push through the crowd, while others are waiting to enter. Outside bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles whiz by and about 100 buses are parked around the corner. This is the hub for where you can get to all of Nepal’s villages and regions by bus, which is the one form of transportation that keeps the country connected. That’s why hotels have popped up like mushrooms after a rain around the station, catering to migrant workers that are going or coming home, or has a lay over on their journey from their village and the Gulf countries.
Some people have bought chocolate and toys to their children. Others hold on to their heard earned money.
The 39-year-old owner of Hotel Shramic, Ghanesh Dhakal, mans the reception dressed in a green North Face jacket. Fifteen years ago, he went to Qatar for the first time.
“Nothing they told me was true,” he says. “When I arrived there was no job, they cheated me.”
On the wall behind him hang two crossed Gurkha knives in gold next to framed certificates and awards. In the middle are small drawings on two Post-It notes, a pink and a yellow, that his children made for Father’s Day.
“To the best dad in the world.”
Back in 2003, when Ghanesh left for Qatar there was a civil war in Nepal between The Communist Party (Maoists) and the Nepalese royal government.
He says those were other times and sits down in one of the worn armchairs.
“This is what I worked for in Qatar,” he says about the hotel that he’s named Shramic because it means labor. “It has not been easy, but every day, this is what I dreamed about.”
After years of working for shady employers who often paid him in cash, Ghanash finally landed a solid job for a company in the Hotel industry. The Kafala system, which was in place back then, demanded that all workers had a “sponsor” in the country, but Ganesh Dhakal slipped through.
“It was a great company. I learned a lot about the hotel industry and could send home money to my family. But I was very unhappy. It was very hard.”
Over the years the Nepalese population in Qatar grew and they started looking out for each other. Networks started. If someone got mistreated the others collected money. With time awareness and understanding about the laws and regulations started spreading in the community. And after five years of hard work, seven days a week, Ganesh returned to Nepal, got married and flew to Qatar back to do four more years.
“It took eight years to save up enough to buy a hotel, and that was my plan all along,” he says enthusiastically.
In addition to offering food and a roof over their heads, Ganesh also shares his experiences to the migrant workers.
“The picture my guests have of Qatar is often far from the reality they will actually land in,” he says. “There aren’t any short cuts of easy money. I tell them that they won’t be rich fast but if they have a plan and patience, it’s possible.”
Unfortunately it’s too late for many to grasp Ganesh’s first and most important advice.
“Don’t go anywhere without an education, or some type of trade. If you know a trade you can get a good job, but if you have no experience or skills you will not make good money.”
Also, the returners don’t quite have as many nightmare stories compared to 10 years ago.
“Everyone has bank cards and real accounts. I don’t hear about held paychecks anymore,” he says.
The restaurant is noisy. People talking compete with the sounds of the slamming pots and pans in the kitchen. At one of the tables are friends Mohammed Habib Hussein, wearing a black leather vest on top of a checkered shirt, and Mohammed Anowar, who’s donning a USA cap. Both are 26 years old and from the Sunsari District in Nepal, staying at the hotel for a few days on their way back home to their families after two years in Qatar.
“We got the jobs we applied for and the pay was what it said in our contracts. We have heard about people who have had different experiences, but I am happy,” says Mohammed Habib Hussein. “Qatar is a good country.”
Both cleaned labor camps for Midmac Contracting, a construction company, camps where some of the workers that built the Khalifa International Stadium lived. The arena can hold up to 40,000 spectators and will host eight of the 64 World Cup games, starting with England vs. Iran on November 21.
“The company built seven arenas in Qatar, but also hospitals, museums, a subway and a lot of other things. It’s a big construction company.”
They describe both safety conditions and the food as good.
“We didn’t see anyone die and there were no accidents where we worked,” says Mohammed Habib Hussein. “But it’s possible that happened in other locations.”
Their only goal leaving Nepal as migrant labor was sending home money to their families.
“After two years the money is gone. My child was sick so that’s where it went. But I am going back over there,” says Mohammed Anowar.
The goal is working in Qatar for 7 years. It’s a large construction company and there well be work also after the World Cup is over.
“My employer and my friends built the arena where the finals will be played,” Mohammed Anowar says proudly. “But mostly I’m proud that my family has been able to get money thanks to this world cup.”
Despite the political turmoil in Nepal, there are signs of changes – at least in the capitol. The electricity shortage is solved and Kathmandu is like a glow stick thanks to all the strands of lights that some on at night. With a dependable supply of electricity as of the past few years and a growing middle class, the number of shops has grown in the capitol.
None of those heading into the local fish restaurant in central Kathmandu appears to contemplate how far we are from the ocean and freshly caught fish.
Ganesh Gurung, who works with Policy Research Academy, a think tank in Nepal, sits outside of the large window on a plastic chair. He is a sociologist with several studies concerning migration from Nepal under his belt. He recently left Nepal National Network of Safe Migration (NNSM). For the past ten years, ever since Qatar was awarded the Soccer World Cup, his phone has been ringing off the hook. Foreign journalists have called him to get comments on salaries, money, contracts, rights, and number of deaths.
“But nobody asks how these migrants are doing – the mental and social issues that comes with migration,” says Ganesh Gurung, at a Corona-safe distance from the microphone.
He is fluent in English, Nepali, Hindi and the local language Gurung. Skills needed in order to understand what happens underneath it all. He describes the reality in Qatar’s capital as a Russian doll.
“On paper is a contract between the state and a national construction company. But in turn they will hire subcontractors from Korea that will hire subcontractors from Japan that will hire subcontractors from Nepal,” he says. “Layers upon layers upon layers which become impossible to force and create problems for the labor.”
When one Nepali died in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq, Ganesh Gurung fought the case until the family got compensation. That laid the foundation for the compensation that is now awarded the families. From his perspective the past year’s reforms, like introducing minimum wages and abolishing the ill-reputed Kafala System , has been “too little, too late.”
“I’ve asked the Qatari administration why they didn’t introduce these reforms before they got the World Cup in soccer? It is obvious that they would never have come about without the Cup, and I am wondering if they are going to continue them after it is over. The reforms aren’t sustainable in the long term.”
Ganesh Gurung hopes his work will put the migrant worker issue on the forefront and offer a broader perspective.
“Nearly 60 percent of the households in Nepal receive money from relatives working abroad. They quickly get dependent on those funds when things are unstable in the rural areas. Now, with modern technology, the money can be sent instantly from Doha to the village. There are no middle hands. And that means that the people’s financial situation improves.”
The research shows an enormous trend of people moving from villages to cities in Nepal – a migration out of poverty.
“Those who leave are of the lower middle classes, not the extremely poor they don’t make it to Qatar,” Ganesh Gurung says. “The first year they pay off the loan, the second year they fix the roof and the third year they send their children to private schools. Then roof is update the roof from grass to tin and after that, the family moves to a city.”
Outside a plane is coming in for landing at the Tribhuvan International Airport.
“The poverty in Nepal is on its way down, quickly. Twenty years ago, 42 percent of the households lived in absolute poverty. Today that number is 16. Without these remittances, this historical decrease in poverty would have been impossible.”
It also gives Nepali banks a healthy injection of foreign currencies, which provides a much needed stability to the country’s central economy.
“The remittances are the heartbeat of Nepal today, making up 30 percent of the BNP. In the past it was agriculture, today it’s the money the migrant workers make. And that’s just the formal currency flow. If we include the informal remittances, it’s probably more like 40 percent. To put the figure in perspective, before the pandemic tourism made up seven percent of that.”
There’s a mask and a face shielf in Ganesh Gurung’s. His phone keeps ringing but he rejects the calls. The tea on the table is getting cold so he finishes it in big gulps.
Even if the world press has caught wind of the conditions for migrant workers in the Gulf in relation to the World Cup, he says he’s tried to highlight these issues for decades.
What about the debate around the number of dead and cause of death?
“It’s very complicated and also really simple. Every day dead bodies are returned to Nepal. They aren’t old people. They are young. When they left they were healthy, when they arrived [in the Gulf] they were healthy, but now they are dead. So this means the death certificates are false. They are just a formality, needed for the airlines to be able to carry the corpses.”
Some people say some 6,500 people have perished in accidents related to the World Cup, while Qatar only admits about 30 deaths. Who is right and what is the actual number?
“Nobody knows. Those statistics don’t exist. What we know are how many dead bodies are returned to Nepal. In those numbers are housekeepers, landscapers and all the rest. The hidden issue isn’t the number of the dead – it’s about the work related injuries. Nobody really pays attention to that.”
Ganesh Gurung believes that in order to protect the migrant workers and keep them safer is having a number of precedent-setting cases being tried in Qatari courts, where the companies are exposed and possibly prosecuted.
“There has to be a price for companies and countries when workers die in accidents. But the Nepali Embassy doesn’t even have an assigned lawyer for the citizens to use in order to take companies and corporations to court. That’s what’s needed.”
Despite the fact that 1,200 Nepali returned to Kathmandu in coffins, the number of people who want to go abroad for work is growing. Also the workers whose employers are withholding their pay are staying. Why don’t they just go home?
“It’s a push and pull-factor. It’s hard for them in Qatar, but they also have big dreams. They have seen those who have been successful, managed to move to the city, sending their children to good schools, college and that’s what they see for themselves. They are free to return to Nepal, but are stuck in their dreams of a different life.”
Ganesh Gurung believes that much would improve if the migrant workers concretized these dreams and laid out a plan for migrant work.
“Say that your dream is to buy a small farm with 25 cows. You can sell milk and make cheese. That’s a concrete goal. If you then you apply for a job at a farm in Qatar, you can bring home both money and experience. Unfortunately too many send home every coin they make, they don’t invest any of it, and it ends up being spent on cell phones, TVs and other consumer products.”
Our tee cups are empty and the sun has settled over Kathmandu. With one year left before the World Cup, much of the work is done, the arenas are built, and the migrant workers return home to Nepal.
“It’s like in the olden days when those of the lowest stratum castes, The Dalits also called The Untouchables, built the temples. When they were finished, the Dalits were forbidden to enter, since they were considered unclean,” Ganesh Gurung says. “The soccer arenas are the temples of our time. Those who have built them will never enter, they’ll have to watch the games on TV.”
This was the second part in a series of reportages from Nepal by Blankspots Martin Schibbye. Translated by Majsan Boström. Part one: ”Part 1: Families whose dreams were crushed in Qatar” and part three: ”Part 3: Coffins from Qatar has forced Nepalese politicians to act.”
Read also Martin Schibbyes meeting with professional soccer player Tim Sparv who said: ”We can do so much more than just winning games.”
For more stories about migrant workers see: Cards of Qatar.