At soar­ing rate, Nepalis seek­ing jobs abroad come home dead

While still pro­mot­ing for­eign la­bor

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

A tiny young wo­man crouches just out­side the air­port, cry­ing softly into her thin shawl. It’s cold out, but her sleep­ing tod­dler is heavy and 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 ex­cit­edly wave fi­nal good­byes to friends and fam­ily. On this day 1,500 will fly out of the Kathmandu air­port bound for jobs mostly in Malaysia, Qatar or Saudi Ara­bia jobs that are ur­gently needed by the peo­ple of this des­per­ately poor coun­try. But on this day, too, six young men will come back in wooden cas­kets, rolled like suit­cases out of bag­gage claim on lug­gage carts.

On the wooden lid of one some­one has writ­ten in black marker: “Hu­man Re­mains, Balk­isun Man­dal Khatwe, Male - 26 years - Nepali.” Saro’s hus­band - an­other vic­tim of a hid­den and es­ca­lat­ing tragedy.

Pro­mot­ing for­eign la­bor

The num­ber of Nepali work­ers go­ing abroad has more than dou­bled since the coun­try be­gan pro­mot­ing for­eign la­bor in re­cent years: from about 220,000 in 2008 to about 500,000 in 2015. Yet the num­ber of deaths among those work­ers has risen much faster in the same pe­riod. 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, over 5,000 work­ers from this small coun­try have died work­ing abroad since 2008- more than the num­ber of US troops killed in the Iraq War. The causes, in many cases, have been mys­te­ri­ous. Nat­u­ral death, heart at­tack or car­diac ar­rest are listed for nearly half the deaths. Most fam­i­lies are no­ti­fied that their loved ones sim­ply went to bed and never woke up. That’s ex­actly what Saro was told.

But now med­i­cal re­searchers say these deaths fit a fa­mil­iar pat­tern: Ev­ery decade or so, dozens, or even hun­dreds, of seem­ingly healthy Asian men work­ing abroad in poor con­di­tions start dy­ing in their sleep. It hap­pened in the US in the late 1970s, in Sin­ga­pore about a decade later and more re­cently in China. The sus­pected killer even has a name: Sud­den Un­ex­plained Noc­tur­nal Death Syn­drome. Next year, an in­ter­na­tional con­sor­tium is launch­ing to in­ves­ti­gate and hope­fully of­fer so­lu­tions. For to­day’s ar­rivals, they’re too late. Nepal ex­ports iron and steel, car­pets, some veg­eta­bles - but mainly, Nepal ex­ports men. It even ad­ver­tises them.

“Nepalese work­ers are well known for their hard work, ded­i­ca­tion and loy­alty,” boasts the Nepalese Em­bassy web­site in Doha, Qatar, where a pre-World Cup con­struc­tion boom em­ploys about 1.5 mil­lion mi­grants. The Nepali work­ers “are com­par­a­tively cost ef­fec­tive,” says the em­bassy, and they’re ex­pe­ri­enced at“work­ing in the ex­treme cli­matic con­di­tions.”The un­skilled work­ers fill a host of global demands: build­ing high­ways, sta­di­ums and houses in Gulf states and guard­ing shop­ping malls, sewing sweat­shirts and as­sem­bling tele­vi­sions in Malaysia. Any­one who has bought im­ported sports­wear or elec­tron­ics, or who plans to go to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, may be us­ing the prod­ucts of their la­bor.

Lucky

Nepali law bans re­cruiters and em­ploy­ers from charg­ing fees. Qatar, where Balk­isun was work­ing, pro­hibits the fees too. But in real­ity ev­ery­one has to pay for these jobs. The men bor­row at 36 per­cent in­ter­est rates from money lenders or sell off fam­ily land to get the $1,100 stake needed for re­cruiters, air­line tick­ets and more. Con­di­tions vary by coun­try and em­ployer, but it’s not un­com­mon for work­ers to find them­selves liv­ing a dozen or more to a room, sleep­ing stacked on three-tiered bunks, work­ing 10- to 15-hour days, seven days a week, for years. If they’re lucky - and some are - they can send home wads of cash, about $300 a month. Of­ten, how­ever, they are tricked or cheated out of their earn­ings.

About 10 per­cent of Nepal’s 28 mil­lion res­i­dents are work­ing abroad. They send back more than $6 bil­lion a year, amount­ing to about 30 per­cent of the coun­try’s an­nual rev­enues. Only Ta­jik­istan and Kyr­gyzs­tan are more de­pen­dent on for­eign earn­ings.

Some come back maimed or dis­abled, like Salit Man­dal, who rolled off a third-level 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.”

His fam­ily had pinned their hopes on him af­ter he re­turned from an ear­lier stint in Qatar with enough money to build a five-bed­room house. Now his mom takes a visi­tor aside and says the sit­u­a­tion is hor­ri­ble - Salit can’t squat by him­self over the pit toi­let, she says, and she has to clean him up af­ter­ward.

His lit­tle brother Ja­mun Man­dal, 24, is next in line. He’s aban­doned his as­pi­ra­tions of go­ing to col­lege and has paid the re­cruit­ing bro­ker. He holds up a pass­port. “I know it sounds weird to be plan­ning to go, be­cause peo­ple die, dis­ap­pear, they come back in co­mas,” he says, “But what to do?”

Sit­ting be­hind her tidy desk at the De­part­ment of For­eign Em­ploy­ment, spokes­woman Rama Bhat­tarai shrugs off the death toll. “I’m not try­ing to be in­sen­si­tive but we have sent mil­lions of work­ers to more than 100 coun­tries, and so yes, some­times peo­ple will die. They die as for­eign em­ploy­ees, they die here when a bus goes off a cliff,” she says.

Oth­ers are more in­censed

Krishna Dawadee, act­ing di­rec­tor of Kathmandu’s one-stop work per­mit cen­ter, waves an arm at the hun­dreds of young men gath­ered at the ser­vice win­dow seek­ing fi­nal work ap­provals. Out­side the gates, life in­sur­ance sales­men grab at the prospec­tive work­ers’ arms and sweaters, try­ing to pull them into their of­fices to sell poli­cies.

“These are our youth, drain­ing out from our coun­try,” Dawadee says. “I am very much wor­ried about these peo­ple. Six weeks af­ter Balk­isun Man­dal Khatwe made the long jour­ney from his vil­lage to the em­ploy­ment of­fice, his wife trav­els back across the coun­try to re­trieve his body.

His cas­ket ar­rives on a 7 p.m. flight. It takes more than three hours to get paper­work sorted out be­tween his barely lit­er­ate fam­ily and the air­port bu­reau­crats who needed a death cer­tifi­cate, iden­ti­fi­ca­tions, work per­mits and more.

Find­ing trans­port is less com­pli­cated: The cas­ket slides eas­ily into a cus­tomwelded cof­fin rack. The gov­ern­ment of Nepal ar­ranged to have 10 trucks so equipped af­ter la­bor ex­ports - and deaths abroad - be­gan to rise.

The badly rut­ted and cracked road from the Kathmandu air­port to Belhi vil­lage is closed af­ter dark be­cause too many buses have plunged off the nar­row, steep, sharp curves. But un­der starry skies, the truck was waved past check­points by po­lice who spot­ted the rooftop cof­fin while warm­ing their hands over small fires. Af­ter death, Hindu fu­ner­als must take place as soon as pos­si­ble, hope­fully by the next dawn.

Saro and her son, just 3 years old, jolt around the back­seat for a pre­car­i­ous eight-hour jour­ney. They jounce in their seats as the truck bot­toms out in pot­holes, jerk side to side as it races around corners.

When the truck reaches Belhi, hun­dreds of women in tra­di­tional saris, men in their work clothes and chil­dren pour into the nar­row dirt street, tears stream­ing down their faces. Ev­ery­one pushes and shoves to get close to the cof­fin. Some stand on rooftops. Oth­ers crowd a bal­cony.

Nepal is one of the poor­est and least de­vel­oped coun­tries in the world, and Belhi is one of its poor­est places. The Man­dals live eight peo­ple to a room in one of about 700 mu­dand-stick homes set among dry, sparse rice pad­dies. A shared cell­phone is passed from house to house. Peo­ple are chron­i­cally hun­gry, liv­ing on less than $1 a day.

The Man­dals and their neigh­bors are marginal­ized in ev­ery way: Eth­ni­cally, they’re from the “un­touch­able” caste, and they speak Maithili, a lan­guage more com­mon in In­dia, just a few miles south.

Fam­ily mem­bers wres­tle Balk­isun’s cof­fin off the truck. Mo­hammed To­hit, 28, watches from across the street, then looks at his hands, the cloud­less sky, a dis­tant mango tree. He wipes a wet cheek. “I knew this guy, and the thing is when you see peo­ple com­ing back in a cof­fin like this, it’s hard,” he says. He adds qui­etly: “I’m leav­ing for Saudi in 10 days.”

To­hit is the envy and in­spi­ra­tion of the vil­lage. He worked in Malaysia for al­most six years sewing clothes for Nike, Lacoste and Columbia Sports­wear, sav­ing more than $20,000. That was enough to build a sturdy, ce­ment two-bed­room house with plas­ter walls and a brick foun­da­tion. He bought a piece of farm­land and a tele­vi­sion set. There’s a cow staked out­side his wo­ven fence, among the goats and chick­ens. His round-cheeked, 6-month-old daugh­ter, Saieha, is shy in the arms of his wife, Ja­rina Khatun. “I am scared, sure, but I have no way to earn any­thing here,” he says. “I have no choice but to leave again.”

Balk­isun’s brother Ra­ma­sis, 35, went for work in Dubai but re­turned three months later with a de­bil­i­tat­ing men­tal ill­ness. Bid­hya Nanda, 25, the youngest, is still in the Gulf, work­ing as a jan­i­tor in Saudi Ara­bia. An­other brother, 30-yearold Ramk­isun, flew back from Malaysia, where he was work­ing in fac­to­ries mak­ing Sony and Pana­sonic prod­ucts, when he learned of Balk­isun’s death.

Their fa­ther, Kalaru, hates to see his sons go, but has no op­tion: “We are poor and we don’t have any way at all to earn money in our vil­lage.”

The news of his son’s death came in a morn­ing phone call two weeks ear­lier. It seemed im­pos­si­ble. Here’s what peo­ple say about Balk­isun: He was a good lad. He didn’t smoke. He got along with ev­ery­one. He was very help­ful. He was hon­est.

Balk­isun was work­ing for Habtoor Leighton Group in Qatar, load­ing trucks to build new high­ways. The high­way was be­ing built as part of broader in­fras­truc­ture im­prove­ments for the 2022 World Cup, said his su­per­vi­sor Ganesh Khang Man­dal, 48. Dubai-based HLG did not re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view. Aus­tralia-based CIMIC, a 45 per­cent owner of HLG, said in a state­ment that it did not want to com­ment.

Saro had chat­ted with Balk­isun through Face­book Mes­sen­ger just the evening be­fore his death.

Al­though he con­fided to friends he was hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time with his job, money and hous­ing, he told Saro that every­thing was go­ing well. He took a selfie in his yel­low work hard­hat, eyes grin­ning through pro­tec­tive sun­glasses, his face cov­ered in a blue scarf to fend off the harsh cli­mate. He told her about a big fes­ti­val that day. “OK, I’ll call you to­mor­row morn­ing” - the last words her hus­band said to her.

This is what hap­pened, ac­cord­ing to his su­per­vi­sor: “Af­ter work he went to din­ner at 7 and bed at 10. In the morn­ing we tried to wake him up but he didn’t re­spond. We took the body to the hos­pi­tal where they did an au­topsy and said it was car­diac ar­rest.” He’d been in Qatar less than a month.

Author­i­ties in Nepal say their cit­i­zens seem to die abroad more fre­quently than their equally vul­ner­a­ble Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and In­done­sian co-work­ers, but the ex­pla­na­tion for the in­creased mor­tal­ity has been un­clear. “It’s usu­ally sleep­ing dis­ease,” said Ku­mud Khanal, vice pres­i­dent of the Nepal As­so­ci­a­tion of For­eign Em­ploy­ment Agen­cies, which rep­re­sents more than 400 reg­is­tered agents. “We get the re­port that he was talk­ing with friends in the evening, had din­ner and went to bed, and in the morn­ing he was found dead.” The deaths are re­ported as a hy­per­ten­sion prob­lem, he said, like heart at­tack or car­diac ar­rest. —AP

—AP

SAP­TARI DISTRICT, Nepal: In this Wednesday, Nov 23, 2016 photo, a wo­man breaks down af­ter see­ing the body of her son Balk­isun Man­dal Khatwe, a mi­grant worker who died in his sleep in Qatar, at Belhi vil­lage.

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