Deadly risks increase for workers abroad
A tiny young woman crouches just outside the airport, crying softly into her thin shawl. It’s cold, but her sleeping toddler is warm in her arms.
Travelers swarm around: Himalayan trekkers load up expedition backpacks. A Chinese tour group boards a bus. A dozen flight attendants in crisp blue suits and heels click by.
Saro Kumari Mandal, 26, covers her head completely, a bundle of grief.
Hundreds of young Nepali men wave goodbyes. On this day 1,500 fly out of the Kathmandu airport for desperately needed jobs, mostly in Malaysia, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. But on this day, too, six come back in wooden caskets, rolled out of baggage claim on luggage carts.
Scrawled in black marker on one: “Human Remains, Balkisun Mandal Khatwe”. Saro’s husband.
The number of Nepali workers going abroad more than doubled after the country began promoting foreign labor in recent years: from about 220,000 in 2008 to about 500,000 in 2015. The number of deaths among those workers has risen much faster. One out of every 2,500 workers died in 2008; last year, one out of every 500 died, according to an Associated Press analysis of data released by Nepal’s Ministry of Labor and Employment.
In total, more than 5,000 workers from the small country have died working abroad since 2008 — more than the number of United States troops killed in the Iraq war.
The causes are often listed as natural death, heart attack or cardiac arrest — the men go to bed after an exhausting day of work and never wake up. That’s what Saro was told happened to Balkisun, who was a construction worker in Doha, Qatar, building a highway for the 2022 football World Cup, when he died.
Now medical researchers
If my hands and legs could move I would do something, but I can’t do anything.” Salit Mandal, worker who fell from a bunk in Malaysia
say these deaths fit a familiar pattern: every decade or so, dozens, or even hundreds, of seemingly healthy migrant Asian workers start dying in their sleep. The suspected killer even has a name: Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome.
About 10 percent of Nepal’s 28 million residents work abroad. They send back more than $6 billion a year, 30 percent of the country’s revenues. Only Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are more dependent on foreign earnings.
The migrants pay recruiters about $1,100 for the jobs. If they’re not tricked out of their earnings — and some are — they can send home about $300 a month.
Some come back maimed or disabled, like Salit Mandal, who rolled off a thirdlevel bunk in Malaysia and smashed in his skull. He’s in debt, partially paralyzed and lives with his parents.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do, how I’m going to raise them, because I can’t move,” he says, gazing at his three children. “If my hands and legs could move I would do something, but I can’t do anything at all.”
At Balkisun’s village, his wife falls screaming and crying onto the road and is carried inside. About 50 men carry his body to a river on a bamboo platform.
His young son is purified, dipped naked in the river. He’s wrapped in white cloth. And with his uncles’ hands guiding his own, he takes a bundle of burning twigs and lights his father’s funeral pyre.