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Part 3: Coffins from Qatar has forced Nepalese politicians to act

Many of the migrant workers who have lost their lives or been injured in Qatar are from Nepal. Meet the bureaucrats and “Diplomats of Death” who are helping the victim’s families with compensation and to improve the conditions for the migrant labor.

This is the third part in a series of articles from Nepal. Read part one here, and two here.

The dead are staring into the camera. Page up and page down, passport pictures are stapled or glued to the applications along with fingerprints, job contracts, visas and death certificates. The piles fill a whole table at the office of Nepal’s Foreign Employment Board

Rajan Shrestha, who is in charge, flips through the pile of that day. He says it’s hard to keep statistics and data. The only number he can guarantee is that when the pandemic year of 2020 came to an end, 1,213 people had returned from the Gulf Countries in coffins. 

Three per day. 

Nepal’s Foreign Employment Board handles all the applications from families.

“Initially I met the widows and fatherless children every day in my office, the tears and the devastated faces, nobody can prepare you for that,” Rajan Shrestha says. “Nowadays, everything is done digitally and those children no longer come to my office, but every day I write new checks to the victim’s families. Every day when I come home from work, I feel a great sense of loss. And that’s what it’s like for everyone here. If you look at my colleagues after five, all faces are sad.” 

One of the requirements to receive the $5,000 compensation is an established cause of death. In black ink short, staccato-like sentences spell it out on the different applications: truck accident, crushed by steel beam, mauled by a vehicle, strangled to death, fell from the tenth floor, brain tumor, electrocution, suicide, explosion, stroke, heart attack, brain tumor, suicide, traffic accident, heart failure, respiratory distress, organic heart disease, and fall from a tall building. 

The pattern is obvious. On page after page are statements like “death by natural causes” or “cause of death unknown.”

“The airlines require a death certificate to transport a body, so it’s more of a formality than a genuine interest in why the person died,” Rajan Shrestha explains and pulls down his mask for a moment to drink the steaming hot tea that’s on his desk. 

He adjusts the small pin with the Nepalese flag on his coat lapel. The wallpaper behind him has big flowers and the traffic noise can be heard through the windows of the outside of the office, which is located in Babarmahal. 

Rajan Shresta says it’s hardly ‘natural’ to die young and healthy.

“I have brought this up with the politicians many times,” he says. “When I am signing the check so the victim’s families so they can request their money, seventy-three percent of the cases are: ‘natural cause of death.’” 

He knows the number by heart thanks to all the times he’s gotten that question. 

It’s common that the families come to Rajan Shrestha’s office, telling him that the death certificate is wrong.

“I have widows coming in here saying: ‘My husband did not die of natural causes. You have to reopen this case,’ but my problem is that these certificates are produced and stamped by an authority from another country, so what am I supposed to do?” 

Rajan Shrestha throws his hands up in the air and adds with resignation in his voice: “So yes, that’s is the core of it. It’s hardly ‘natural’ to die young and healthy.”

The requirement for autopsies and proper cause of death investigations have been raised, not only by Nepal but also by the UN and the International Labor Organization (ILO) as well as a number of other countries.

Amnesty International recently published a report that showed seven out of ten deaths were left unsolved. Amnesty reviewed 18 death certificates for migrant workers issued by Qatar between 2017 and 2021. Fifteen of them provided no information about underlying causes, but wording like “acute heart failure natural causes”, “heart failure unspecified” and “acute respiratory failure due to natural causes”.   

Doctor David Bailey, a leading pathologist and member of the WHO Working Group on Death Certification, told Amnesty International that wasn’t enough information: ”Essentially, everyone dies of respiratory of cardiac failure in the end and the phrases are meaningless without an explanation of the reason why.”

Rajan Shrestha points out that non-existing autopsies and incomplete fatality investigations of migrant workers is not unique to Qatar and that the world is starting to pay attention. 

On his desk are also the paperwork of fellow countrymen and women whose lives ended in Malaysia, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and on the African continent. 

“It almost always says ‘natural causes’ on those death certificates too,” he says. 

Organisers of the 2022 World Cup have vowed to leave a legacy in Qatar. However, for some families in Nepal, the tournament has already left an indelible mark on their lives.

In the past, the Nepali government was criticized for not looking after its citizens’ interests. Instead they blamed rogue recruitment firms and the foreign companies. But they have recently started working on several fronts to help the Nepalese migrant workers. 

“Number one is information,” Rajan Shrestha says. “We have opened a center where you can call for accurate answers about contracts, salaries and visa costs. Basically anything needed to fight fraud, and prevent rogue recruiters and other middlemen from ripping the workers off.”

As a second measure, the Nepali government has established an office that handles complaints about missing paychecks and contract issues. They also represent the citizens’ interests. There are now more than 150 offices around Nepal where people can turn for help. 

“We have learned that we can reach the workers when they apply for their passport,” Rajan Shrestha says. “So when they do, we also give them a mandatory course in safety, laws and rules.” 

On top of all this the Nepali government also wants to train their own labor so that they don’t just exporting ”low skilled workers” but engineers, computer technicians, surveyors, tile setters and carpenters. 

“That’s what we can do on an administration level, getting further requires these issues to be handled on a higher political level.”

Though much of Rajan Shrestha’s work surrounds death, there are other important issues to address.

“We also see a major need in mental health with the migrant workers. Everything is not life or death. We help people who are imprisoned abroad and housekeepers who need emergency shelter.”

Funeral ceremony in Kathmandu.

Even if the Nepali government does much more today for a better outcome for the thousands of people going abroad to make a living, one major problem remains, Rajan Shrestha says –how glamorized labor migration is among the young. 

“That picture of that glamorous job in the Gulf has to stop,” he says. “The workers need a clear understanding of the reality. We have a lot more we can do in that department. In a country as poor as Nepal these materialistic dreams seduces the young. If we are going to reduce the fatalities and accidents, changing those attitudes is where we have to start.”

The return of the migrant workers is also important. 

“Those who come back with mental health issues, financial problems and problems with their physical health, what do we do for them? There needs to be a plan for re-integration. We have a budget for it so that’s what we will work on in 2022.”

The floor in reception area outside of Rajan Shrestha’s office is covered by plush red carpet. A few sunrays find their way through the small windows, and it’s quiet aside from the bubbling sound from a blue water container. 

An older man sits in a chair. His black hair has strands of grey, and his sockless feet are worn out slippers. On the wall behind him is a text outlining the rights of migrant workers. A week ago he withdrew the funds his young son sent home from the United Arab Emirates, money he was supposed to use for the celebration of his return. That celebration will instead be a funeral. 

“They called and said he died of a heart attack. I am her to claim his body and take him home,” the old man says, his breath smelling of alcohol and his face red from crying. 

Over the course of a few decades Nepal has transformed from a strict monarchy plagued by a brutal civil war to peaceful republic.

Nepal’s political situation is complicated to say the least. In the past people blamed all problems on the king, today everything is the fault of the politicians. Over the course of a few decades the country has transformed from a strict monarchy plagued by a brutal civil war to peaceful republic. But it took nearly 10 years for a new constitution to come into effect after the peace in 2006. 

After the latest elections, different parties sprung out of the former Maoist guerilla have dominated the politics. But difficulties in cooperating and rifts have gained more power to the congressional party, NC. 

Still, only about half of Nepal’s population has electricity or running water and the many transformations of the country’s ruling parties and subsequent changes in economic policy means that development was at a standstill even before the pandemic. 

But from one perspective, everything is the same. 

Despite abuse, unpaid wages, extreme working conditions, and difficulties in changing employer, the number of migrant workers has steadily increased.

Cabinet Secretary of the Nepali Department of Foreign Affairs, Harish Chandra Ghimire will never forget the man he found sitting outside of the gates of the Nepal Embassy in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, in the early 2000s. 

Dressed in traditional white, he spoke fluent Arabic and appeared confused. 

“He had nearly forgotten his native tongue but managed to explain that he had not received his monthly pay during the 16 years he had worked on the farm.”

Cabinet Secretary of the Nepali Department of Foreign Affairs, Harish Chandra Ghimire.

When Harish Chandra Ghimire, then an ambassador, called, the employer pretended that they didn’t know whom he was inquiring about. 

“They didn’t have anyone by that name, his boss said. When I told him that I would call the police, he suddenly started remembering.” 

A green and lush courtyard is visible through the window in Harish Chandra Ghimire’s large office. The different governmental buildings in Kathmandu are clustered together, almost like a small city in the capital city. On the wall are maps over the different provinces of Nepal. The experience in Saudi Arabia makes him a non-believer in soft diplomacy. 

“You have to be hard if you want to protect your fellow countrymen’s interests in this region.”

Harish Chandra Ghimire thinks all diplomats should have to start their careers in Middle East. Today he, many decades into his diplomat post, is a cabinet secretary and head of policy for Nepali relations with the Middle Eastern states. 

When he understands what the interview is about, he asks me not to video, orders a tea and becomes a little more formal.

“Migration is one of our main responsibilities,” he says. “We negotiate agreements with the countries based on information from the embassies in each country. It’s crucial that we have done our homework about the conditions.”

The demand for housekeepers is extremely big, he adds.

“With good, formal contracts, check-in routines we can send out people to work. Without these mechanisms we should not let our people enter foreign countries as migrant workers.”

In 70 percent of the cases when a worker dies in Qatar, the cause of death is deemed a “natural”. Is this something you bring up with the Qatari officials, why they are not getting to the bottom of the cause of death? 

“There are job-related accidents, sometimes fatal ones and some times housekeepers need to be rescued by our diplomats, but during the past few years the Middle Eastern countries have started enforcing new rules. As diplomats we have also gotten more power against employers in order to protect our countrymen. If they don’t get paid, or get paid too little, we act and blacklist the company.”

According to Harish Chandra Ghimire diplomacy works and they have pushed for reforms in the Qatari labor laws. In contrast to the work of human rights organizations to demand change via media, they have the power to stop the influx of labor and no one wants to pay that price.

“If the companies don’t listen, we go to the government and then they lose their permits,” he says. “We have powerful tools that our missions abroad do not hesitate to use.”

Thanks to the hard diplomacy, there have also been some attitude changes in Qatar, according to the cabinet secretary.

“Money alone cannot create development,” he says. “They need labor and they have begun to realize the value of good labor. Without migrant workers, development in Qatar would not be possible and the Emir knows that.”

According to Harish Chandra Ghimire the state of Qatar wants to maintain a healthy relationship with Nepal and their national development. 

“When I meet diplomats and politicians from Qatar, they want to talk about how they can invest in Nepal,” he says. “They want to develop tourism and initiate other collaborations – beyond the World Cup. Our compatriots have earned this goodwill by working hard over the past ten years. They have not only worked together money, they have all been ambassadors for Nepal.”

To be a waitress at St. Regis Doha, 28-year-old Asmita Lama paid a recruiter roughly $700. 

The five star hotel St. Regis Doha is located on a private beach in West Bay. All air-conditioned rooms offer a view over the Persian Gulf and luxury marble bathrooms with a separate rain shower. A short taxi ride away is the Education City Stadium and the Khalifa International Stadium, two of the World Cup arenas.

To be a waitress at St. Regis Doha, 28-year-old Asmita Lama paid a recruiter roughly $700. 

“My friends had gone abroad and I had heard their stories and seen their pictures on Facebook. That made me want to go too,” she says. 

Asmita Lama, who’s wearing a yellow Adidas jacket, admits that she’s both nervous and a little embarrassed that she’s back in Nepal again. The first day she arrived, she realized that the Qatar she’d seen in Facebook posts were not the same as reality. 

“I lived in an apartment with old mattresses on the floor and shared a room with some young girls from the Philippines,” she says. “It was supposed to be furnished with everything but the first thing I had to do was buying a pillow and a blanket.”

That was December 2019, and the hotel was fully booked when she did her first eight our shifts. One month later the news about a deadly virus began spreading across the world and soon all rooms were empty. 

“There was nobody to serve, ‘No work, no pay,’ the company said.”

Asmita Lama looks over Kathmandu through the window. She was alone and insecure in a foreign country and had absolutely no idea what to do. She tried speaking to the hotel management, but a sub contractor had hired her and they had nothing to do with her contract. She tried to ask for her paycheck but it didn’t go very well. 

“I wanted to go home but was bounced around the actual hotel, the corporation and the recruiter. Nobody knew anything so I was stuck there for seventeen months without pay.”

Seventeen months? 

“Yes. I was finally able to get in touch with the Embassy of Nepal and they helped me with a ticket home by the help organization Nepali Non Residence Association.”

The parents were ecstatic to get their daughter home safely from Qatar. Despite the experience Asmita Lama is not scared of working abroad. Her brother is in Dubai and she’s wondering if that’s maybe a better country to work in. 

Asmita Lama doesn’t harbor animosity against Qatar or the hotel, but thinks that the recruitment company is the guilty party. She wants other youngsters in her situation to consider their choices carefully when planning their migrant work.

“Don’t rush. If you just hop on a plane and go, anything can happen.”

After we part, I have a look at the posts on her Facebook account from the past year. One photo shows her by a pool, smiling. Another photo is of her, also smiling, by the entrance of the hotel that didn’t paid her. A third photo is from the beach in Doha. Friends have commented on the posts with thumbs up, hearts and suns. 

Lawyer Mohammed Ramzan Ali Miya moved to Doha for the love of the Arabic language.

All Nepalis don’t travel to Qatar to make money. Lawyer Mohammed Ramzan Ali Miya moved to Doha for the love of the Arabic language. He has spent a decade in the country and on his suit lapel are two pins, one of the Qatar flag and the other of Nepal. He recently published a book about his time in Doha. 

“I get upset every day about all the rumors that are spread about Qatar on social media. Ministers some times call me and ask how media can be allowed to publish all those rumors,” he says and laughs. 

He asks me to turn off the video camera. He wants to give me “information – no interview.”

After earning his master degree in Arabic literature at the University of Karachi in Pakistan, he took a position at the Nepal Embassy in Doha. Already as a student he translated, and wrote several books of his own about the region and its culture. Once in Qatar, he began translating the country’s official documents into Nepali – the country’s labor legislation, among other things.

With time rumors about his skills spread and his countrymen who needed documents translated or didn’t understand their contracts came to him for help. Some of those people had not been paid or otherwise treated poorly. 

When authorities in Qatar noticed his work, they asked him to put together a guide for migrant workers from Nepal and he became a link between the two nations. 

Today Mohammed Ramzan has received awards from Qatar’s ruling emirs and works for the country’s human rights committee. 

“The laws Qatar introduced in 2016 changed a lot of things,” he says, adding that the laws have been implemented. “Nowadays, all payments of wages take place digitally and directly to the worker’s private accounts. It is straightened out now.”

“The Kafala System was bad but now it’s gone. The new minimum wage law has also made a difference and the next step is official work permits,” says Ramzan Ali Miya enthusiastically.

Where problems still occur are in cases with many subcontractors and where several foreign companies are involved.

“But 90 percent get their pay checks on time. Guaranteed!” 

Mohammed Ramzan says there’s been an improvement in how deaths are handling. Since it’s illegal to cremate bodies in Qatar, they have been criticized for taking too long to return corpses to their native countries. 

“Qatar has done a lot to simplify that process,” he says. “Nowadays we have a ‘fast track’. The bodies are collected at a Hamad hospital and are out of the country in less than 24 hours.” 

He also wants to highlight is that today there are legal avenues to take for those who treated improperly.

“The process can be long, it is a slow machinery with a few too many doors you have to open,” Mohammed Ramzan admits.

Sometimes workers contact his committee with human rights claims, other times to the department of interior, the department of labor, local courts and special courts for work environment crimes. Many of the problems migrant workers run into in Qatar today, could have been avoided if they had better information. 

“Getting a visa to Qatar is free, the time in quarantine is also free, but the recruiters still trick Nepalese into paying for these things. Qatar is trying to reach the labor with that information.”

Today the challenge is getting migrant workers to choose Qatar before other countries in the region. To get the best workers for their construction projects, some companies offer good conditions and insurance, according to Mohammed Ramzan.

“Qatar is introducing a new insurance system, making it mandatory for companies to insure workers at all hours of the day, 24-7 and everyone must carry an ID card and a health card, which they can present to receive care.”

Relations between the government and the diaspora groups in Qatar are also improving every day, he adds. 

When he started at the Nepal Embassy in Qatar, hundreds of people reached out for help every day. Now it’s only two people or so, per day. 

“The Kafala System was bad but now it’s gone. The new minimum wage law has also made a difference and the next step is official work permits,” he says enthusiastically.

The fact that the International Labor Organization the ILO, has opened an office in the country Mohammed Ramzan views as a big step forward.

Currently, the Nepalese are the second largest group of migrant workers in Qatar. Only India has more. The fact that the International Labor Organization the ILO, has opened an office in the country Mohammed Ramzan views as a big step forward.

No other of the Gulf countries offer the rights workers have in Qatar today. The lawless times are over for migrant workers. Qatar is our second home these days. 

Many also die in Qatar and there are few real investigations around the causes of death. Why is that? 

“Qatar has one of the world’s most prominent health care systems with a GSI-standard. They perform the most advanced surgeries. So if a country with Qatar’s resources want to find out why someone has died, it’s entirely possible. If Nepalese authorities want to more detailed death certificates, they have to bring that up with Qatar.” 

Mohammed Ramzan picks up his newly published book and stands up. He is scheduled to meet Doha’s Chief of Police. After that more interviews are lined up. The interest for the Arabic language and Qatar is on the rise, and he pens “Today’s Word in Arabic” a column to raise knowledge about the language. 

“I wish that the World Cup becomes a great success,” he says. 

For the Nepalese union the question about the migrant workers’ rights have been just as important as the demands for higher minimum wage in their own country.

Mohammed Ramzan is not the only one who has changed his views on the situation in Qatar over the years. 

For the Nepalese union the question about the migrant workers’ rights have been just as important as the demands for higher minimum wage in their own country. When the construction industry exploded in Qatar, a country where 96 percent of the labor force is made up by migrant workers, the GEFONT noticed the number of deaths spiking. Fear and poverty made the migrant labor agree to work in nearly any circumstances. 

Bishni Rimal was head of GEFONT, General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, in 2013.

“That year we received seven to ten bodies per day,” he says. 

He was one of the politicians that helped Nepal overthrow the monarchy and is also one of the architects behind the new constitution. When he looks back at the struggle over the past 10 years, he also counts improving labor conditions in Qatar as his biggest accomplishment. 

“We fought side by side with international human rights organizations and the global construction unions, and if we compare now and then, enormous changes have taken place.”

Bishni Rimal was head of GEFONT, General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, in 2013. “The case of Qatar is a collective victory for the international union,” he says proudly.

Bishnu Rimal highlights the agreement with UN’s labor organization ILO in 2017, which was intended to come to terms with the horrific migrant worker conditions. Shortly thereafter, ILO opened an office in Qatar and has since then published a number of reports on the situation. The minimum wage was also upped from 750 Qatari Riyal ($206) to 1000 ($275), which had a big impact on the labor market. 

In 2018, Qatar removed the “exit visa” requirement, which means the workers can leave the country whenever they want to. And two years later, in 2020, they also removed “No Objection Certificate” which allowed the workers to quit and get a new job as they saw fit. In the past they could only change jobs if the employer agreed to it.   

But the biggest victory for the migrant workers was the abolishment of the Kafala system.

“Considering the situation in the other countries in this region, this is nothing short of a dramatic change.”

Will we see decisions about allowing unions in Qatar?

“We cannot demand that Qatar changes its constitution, but what we can do is pointing out that their laws are violating international worker’s rights,” Bishnu Rimal says. “The migrants are a minority, so Qatar has to understand the rights of these workers.” 

The situation today cannot be compared to that of 10 years ago. 

“The case of Qatar is a collective victory for the international union,” he says proudly.

This was the third 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 two: “We Came to Qatar to Pursue our Dreams”.

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.