Has Maya Kumari Sharma become an unlikely heroine by speaking up boldly against gross injustice endured by migrant workers in Qatar?
Four days after being recalled from her ambassadorial position in Qatar for her, as what the news media described as “controversial remarks and unprofessional conduct”, Maya Kumari Sharma has turned to the Supreme Court against the decision. She has claimed in her petition that as she was appointed envoy to Qatar by the President, the Council of Ministers alone has no authority to recall her.
This particular news concerning an envoy being unceremoniously relieved of her responsibilities shouldn’t have been worthy of much attention at a time when the nation is preparing for an election.
But the government’s decision to boot her out three years ahead of her tenure in the gulf country comes hot in the heels of an investigative report published by UK’s Guardian newspaper which revealed that 44 Nepali migrant labourers had died this summer in 2022 World Cup host country Qatar. At the spotlight of this issue, her resolve not to give in and contest the government’s decision, something rare in the diplomatic scene, bears great significance.
In fact, the call for her ouster had started to fill the inner pages of Kathmandu newspapers for quite some time because of a series of gaffes and diplomatic faux pas that caused Nepal a great deal of embarrassment.
Ever since her appointment as envoy to Qatar, Sharma was being criticised for her rude behaviour to Nepali migrant workers in Qatar. This became clear after her decision to close a residential building meant for Nepalis in Doha, according to a report published in the Kathmandu Post. Apart from her strained relations with Nepali workers in Qatar, she soon managed to irritate her own host when she went beyond the diplomatic protocols she had to maintain and said in an interview to BBC’s Sajha Sawal that Qatar was an "open jail" in reference to the pathetic living condition for migrant workers in the Gulf state.
Soon after, Qatar’s Foreign Affairs Ministry sought a clarification from her and she apologised for her remarks. But at the same time she urged the Qatari government to deport a Nepali journalist who wrote a letter against her following the fall out.
After intense pressure from the Qatari government, the party that recommended her for the coveted post, and Nepali workers in Qatar, the government finally recalled Sharma.
Sharma may have violated the very sanctity of diplomatic institutions through her controversial statements, failing miserably in her duties, but the Guardian’s investigative report on Nepali workers in Qatar has only served to validate her statement.
Dirty, dangerous and demeaning
A survey conducted by the World Bank in 2011 estimated that more than two million Nepalis were working abroad, 40 percent of them in India. Other key destinations include the Gulf countries (38 percent) and Malaysia (12 percent). Only 8.7 percent are working in other developed countries.
The Nepal Migration Survey carried out by the multi-lateral development agency in 2009 says that almost half of Nepali households have at least one member working abroad or have a returnee, and majority of them were interested in going for foreign employment again.
Most of the Nepali migrant workers belong to the most productive workforce group (aged between 20 and 44), the survey said, adding that the outmigration is causing domestic labour supply shortages in many rural areas.
The survey further stated that the rate of migration and remittance inflow in Nepal is staggering as everyone is migrating—the rich, the poor, people from the Mountains, Hills and the Tarai.
On average, according to the Foreign Employment Department’s recent statistics, as many as 1300 Nepalis are leaving the country to work in countries in the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, south east Asian nation Malaysia and South Korea every day. Many of the Nepali migrants are engaged in construction projects, hotel and manufacturing.
This explains why Nepal is increasingly being recognised as a remittance-driven economy (as well as source for cheap labour) in the last few decades. Remittance at present contributes to more than 20 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product. In 2011, Nepal received Rs 206 billion in remittance.
The survey, however, warns that relying too much on remittance alone, as Nepal has been doing, could be detrimental for the economic health of the country as well as the delicate social fabric of the nation.
And tall signs of which are all there to see: The majority of the Nepali workers abroad are unskilled or semi-skilled labourers, and 3 Ds (Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning) is a term that is fit to describe the kind of labour they are mostly involved in.
This explains why Nepali migrant workers in Qatar died at the rate of almost one a day between June 4 and August 8 this year as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup extravaganza. Citing documents obtained from Nepal’s embassy in Doha, the Guardian reported that many of those who died were young men who had sudden heart attacks while they toiled on World Cup infrastructure project in appalling conditions facing unimaginable exploitation and labour abuses (The investigation revealed they were forced to work long hours in temperatures that can reach 50 c in summer without access to drinking water. And Some Nepali workers complained that they have not been paid for months to stop them from running away).
Nepali workers comprise about 40 percent of 1.2 million foreign labour force in Qatar (it is estimated that anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 Nepalis work in the petroleum rich state, mostly as unskilled laborers and housemaids). According to another report published in the Kathmandu Post which cited Ministry of Foreign Affairs that at least 1600 Nepali workers have died in the Qatar since the Nepali Embassy was set up in its capital Doha in 2000 while 151 died last year alone. The Guardian investigation found that sickness is endemic among workers living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions and hunger has been reported.
This, coupled with the warning by International Trade Union Congress that the World Cup construction will leave at least 4,000 migrant workers dead unless the Qatar government intervenes, makes the situation pretty grim for our men and women in the Gulf state.
But this is not only a story of “one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest,” as the Guardian report may have us believe. The blaming finger should equally be pointed at the successive governments of Nepal which has turned a blind eye to the thousands of horrible cases of deaths, abuse, suffering and exploitation of our brothers and sisters in the Gulf region.
By relying heavily on remittances for economic growth and job creation, the Nepali state has not only forgotten its basic duty to the nation and its people but has virtually relinquished any chances of having a bargaining power with states like Qatar (which depends on foreign workforce to keep its country running) for protection of its migrant workers.
This is quite clear from the fact that Nepal’s government has, instead of pursuing this matter with the Qatar government or even completely banning the flow of Nepali migrant workers to Qatar after the publication of several reports like the one published by Guardian, reacted only by recalling its envoy to the country for just speaking her mind, even though that meant going against diplomatic courtesy she had to maintain.
Nevertheless, such indifference towards the sufferings of its own people was only expected from a former feudal state like Nepal that has always, if one is to flip through the pages of history, been letting its own citizens be exploited or used as cannon fodder by foreign powers.
The Nepali labour migration started when the British started heavily recruiting the Nepali men from the hills, the ‘Gurkhas’, since the beginning of 19th century. Their exploits in all theaters of war Britain participated since has become the stuff of legend in the Nepali imagination. But no one talks about the terrible casualties, pain and suffering the so-called brave Gurkhas suffered while defending a foreign crown and country in the frontlines.
Labour migration was formalized with introduction of Foreign Employment Act in 1985. But given this backdrop, it was little wonder that when waves of Nepali migrants started to look for work in newly industrialised South East Asian region and the oil-rich Gulf states, an evil system that already existed within the country took it as an opportunity to sell cheap labourers for exploitation.
If not, how would one explain the apathy of a government that is fine with sending its illiterate and unskilled citizens, unaware of even their basic rights, to be exploited in foreign lands. How would one explain heartlessness of Nepali man-power agencies, who are no better than traffickers, bent on fleecing the aspirants during the job application process. The village money lenders charge 40-50 percent per annum to pay for the jacked up application fees, something the migrants take at least two years to pay back considering their low wages. In worse condition, they may die in the foreign land even before they can repay their loans. The country's foreign labour migration is full of such sad stories.
So people seeking foreign employment in Nepal are cheated even before they reach their destination. And when they finally do reach these Gulf states, where even Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have slowly stopped sending workers, they find themselves most often to have just been lured into, as what the Guardian report calls, “modern-day slavery”.
The truth is that Maya Kumari Sharma, who was a mid-ranking officer at Agriculture Development Bank of Chitwan before she was suddenly appointed Nepal’s envoy to Qatar on a Maoist quota on February 2012, was not fit for the job.
She was a political appointee who did not have any diplomatic or political experience prior to her appointment and hence it was pretty clear in the outset that she would not be able to fulfill the sort of responsibilities required of someone of her stature and position in a country as sensitive and important for Nepali migrants as Qatar.
And as expected, she made controversial remarks and diplomatic faux pas that caused Nepal a great deal of embarrassment. She failed miserably in her duty to work for the rights and interest of Nepali migrant workers in the country.
Maya Kumari Sharma should not be blamed for her ineptness and failings, however. The fault lies in those politically-driven diplomatic appointments. And the fact that she was appointed ambassador to Qatar despite knowing full well that she would not be able to do justice to her position only shows the lack of any regard or concern of the Nepali state for the welfare of thousands upon thousands of Nepalis men and women who shed their sweat, toil and blood to make the deserts bloom.
And solely for daring to speak the truth at a time when the Nepali officials have sought to play down the investigative Guardian report, Sharma has become an unlikely heroine who courageously stood up against a vulgar injustice that we as a nation have become used to.