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LABOUR-NEPAL: Measures to Fight Abuse Start at Home – Activists

Ramyata Limbu

KATHMANDU, Jan 27 2003 (IPS) - Chandra Kumari Gurung left Nepal to work in South Korea in 1992, a healthy woman nearing 40. She disappeared in 1993 and was found six years and four months later at a national psychiatric hospital there.

A meal she could not pay for and a lack of knowledge of Korean was the start of the nightmarish six years that this normal, balanced woman spent alone in a room in Korea’s national mental hospital, Chung-ryang-ri.

This was her fate until she was tracked down by Korean activists who later helped her sue the South Korean government and the hospital director.

"Because of the carelessness of the Korean police and state she ended up in hospital where she had no business to be," says Choi Sung Kak, vice president of Nature Trail, the non-government group that helped Chandra return home to Nepal in June 2000.

In November 2002, a court awarded Chandra just over 23,500 U.S. dollars compensation. Choi called the amount insulting, adding that Chandra’s lawyers were going to appeal.

"Still no amount of money can right the wrong that that the Korean state committed against Chandra," said Choi, who was in Nepal in October to hand over funds collected from a sympathetic Korean public.

Activists like Choi and Nepalis thinking of working in South Korea hope the case will set a precedent for better labour laws and coping systems for migrant workers in a country that takes hundreds of thousands of foreign ”trainees” – those who earn less than regular workers and often work under difficult conditions.

Nearly 2,000 Nepali workers, 90 percent of them illegal, work long, hazardous hours for minimum wages in South Korea.

Their numbers are small compared to other nationalities. But "Nepalis come at the bottom of the migrant ladder, even lower than Indians and Bangladeshis," says Manju Thapa, who returned from South Korea in 1995 minus a couple of fingers she lost in an industrial accident – and nothing more to show for her three-year stay at a Seoul factory.l

"They’re often expected to work 16-hour shifts,” she says, doing jobs that the locals do not want but are taken by migrant workers from countries like the Philippines to Nepal.

For five years now, Nepal and Korea have an official agreement to provide Nepali labourers as apprentices to work in South Korean factories.

But because the supply of workers is contracted, subcontracted from overseas agencies to Nepali agencies, to smaller agencies and individuals, and due to inefficient implementation of laws, many foreign workers end up getting less than what they were promised. Many work harder and longer hours to pay off debts along with the interest.

Nepali migrant workers are found mostly in the Gulf, where there are more than 90,000 workers now under organised deployment processed by state agencies. But numbers in East Asian countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Korea, are increasing too, a good number of them domestic workers.

According to an investigation in 2000 by the fortnightly magazine ‘Himal Khabarpatriaka’, Nepal earns 75 billion rupees (961.5 million dollars) annually from overseas remittances, more than that from tourism, foreign aid and exports altogether.

Even for a small country like Nepal, the social cost of migration is evident. A report by former labour secretary Damaru Ballav Bhattarai, who visited Gulf countries in 1999, states that 400 young Nepali workers died in accidents or committed suicide in these countries between 1999-2000.

This is why Manju, a researcher with the General Federation of Nepali Trade Unions (GEFONT), is collecting as many case studies of migrant workers like herself.

Her aim is to expose the warped nexus between the government and the manpower agencies that has resulted in low wages, unsafe working conditions and mistreatment of Nepali workers overseas.

"I was among a group of a dozen women who went to Korea through brokers to work in a factory," says Manju. "As a young 18-year-old, I didn’t realise what I was getting into.”

”Most of us were unskilled labourers who had little or no knowledge of hazardous chemicals, health and safety, of operating factory machinery equipment. On top of that we suffered wage discrimination," Manju adds.

Manju, who had a high school education, helped start a Nepali workers support group in Sotuh Korea. "We were basically trying to form a social security network to help Nepali labourers in dire straits."

The federation is urging manpower firms to provide pre-departure training and orientation to migrant labourers to alert them to the risks and vulnerabilities ahead.

Thus far, the government has responded to these risks, especially in the case of women, by barring them from taking up work in the Gulf, just as labour exporters like Bangladesh and the Philippines have done at one time or the another.

But GEFONT, along with the Social Justice Committee of the Upper House and various women’s groups, believes the government should lift the current ban put in place five years ago after a Nepali domestic worker in Qatar committed suicide after being sexually abused by her employers.

"Of course we hear numerous horror stories. But that doesn’t mean all women should be banned from working abroad, it’s a violation of their basic rights," says Binda Pandey of GEFONT and a member of the National Women’s Commission. "It only means that women are forced to take illegal measures and routes to go abroad. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by employers and middlemen."

Instead, groups like the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) are working with GEFONT and the All Nepal Women’s Organisation to arm workers with better information through safe migration packages with material on reproductive health care to pre-departure concerns.

"It’s tough, but we’re negotiating with manpower companies to train their staff to conduct such orientation," says Renu Rajbhandari, WOREC president recently appointed national rapporteur on Trafficking in Women and Children under Nepal’s Human Rights Commission.

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