The findings from a new study of migrant workers from Nepal who traveled to the Middle East for temporary employment serve as a stark example of how low-wage migrant workers are routinely illegally exploited by private recruiters and employers, often leaving individuals unable to access justice either in their home country or abroad.
The two-year study, “Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice at Home: Nepal,” was published by the Open Society Foundations and co-authored by Sarah Paoletti, Director of the Transitional Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, with colleagues Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson of University of New South Wales, Bandita Sijapati of the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, and Bassina Farbenblum of the University of New South Wales.
According to the study, each month approximately 16,000 Nepalis travel to the Gulf States for temporary work, with thousands more traveling to other Middle East countries for employment, the majority of whom suffer high levels of abuse and exploitation, including misrepresentation of the nature and terms of work available, non-payment of wages, and over-charging of recruitment fees, among other illegal practices. Moreover, the study finds Nepal’s government, despite efforts to protect migrant workers, is failing to hold private recruiting agencies and individuals accountable for a variety of illegal acts.
According to report co-author Sarah Paoletti, “Vulnerability to exploitation abroad is often heightened by routine violations committed in Nepal during the pre-departure phase by individual agents, recruitment agencies, and other private actors.” These illegal abuses endured by migrant workers, the report finds, in some cases lead to labor trafficking, forced labor, and debt bondage abroad.
Nepal has established laws and mechanisms to regulate labor migration and provide redress to workers who are exploited or otherwise harmed whether during the recruitment process, throughout the migration process, or once employed. The government strengthened its labor migration framework with the introduction of its Foreign Employment Act in 2007, the Foreign Employment Rules in 2008, and the Foreign Employment Policy of 2012. But, the authors write, “it has not taken sufficient steps to prevent common harms, or to ensure adequate redress and accountability when they occur.”
The problem, according to the study, is that existing laws “set forth clear obligations on the part of recruitment agencies, agents, intending migrant workers, and the entities established to oversee implementation.” However, the law routinely “fails to include explicit corresponding and enforceable rights for workers when those parties fail to meet their obligations.”
Because of this, the study concludes, “access to justice for large numbers of Nepali migrant workers remains elusive.”
For example, of the 54 migrant workers the authors interviewed for the study - all of whom had suffered some harm as part of their employment arrangements - none had obtained full redress through Nepal’s legal or regulatory frameworks.
The report details how on the one hand Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act and Foreign Employment Rules set forth relatively robust regulations for the recruitment of workers for foreign employment, but “much more needs to be done to improve government oversight and transparency in the process, particularly during the pre-departure phase of labor migration.”
“Improving access to justice for migrant workers requires reforming the specific redress mechanisms available to migrant workers, and considering new mechanisms,” the authors contend. “It also requires broader changes to the labor migration system overall, including increased transparency and more effective oversight and regulation to hold all public and private actors within the system to greater account.”
The authors also recommend improving the protections and rights enforcement mechanisms for female migrant workers, “who are particularly vulnerable to serious abuse reasons of gender discrimination, the isolated nature of their work in private homes, and irregular status.”
The study points out that while much attention has been directed to the rights violations endured by low-wage migrant workers in the Middle East, “where access to justice is particularly limited and the harms suffered are particularly acute… the story of labor migration begins and ends at home. While destination countries should not be absolved of their duties to respect and protect the rights of migrant workers within their borders, countries of origin share the burden of ensuring protection of their citizens basic rights, including their right to access justice.”