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With pressure building to move the World Cup, the fragile situation of migrants could worsen if they lose their jobs abroad
As the FIFA corruption scandal widens and pressure builds to move the World Cup from countries tainted by the investigation, a deeper human tragedy may be unfolding: The economically fragile situation of migrant workers who build infrastructure for global sporting events will only worsen if they lose their jobs abroad and have no employment to return to at home.
This is especially true for workers from Nepal, whose country is facing a long recovery following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck in April.
Among the millions of migrant workers toiling around the world on state-of-the-art sports facilities are tens of thousands of Nepali men. For example, some 400,000 Nepali construction workers were in Qatar in April, helping the country prepare for the World Cup and helping their families survive by sending money home.
Like other men and women who seek employment abroad, Nepali migrant workers often are unpaid, receive few benefits, suffer from injuries and disproportionate death rates and are vulnerable to human trafficking. They take these risks for the same reason as hundreds of millions of others who migrate for work: the hope for a better future for themselves and their families.
Meanwhile, many poor countries, including Nepal, have come to rely on migrant workers’ earnings instead of developing good jobs that keep workers in their country. The quake devastation could increase the country’s reliance on remittances, forcing even more workers out of their villages and into dangerous and unprotected jobs abroad.
One of the great failings of labour migration is the lack of reinvestment of migrant workers’ hard-earned wages into the creation of decent jobs. Between 2013 and 2014, remittances accounted for nearly 30 percent of the Nepal’s GDP. Nepal, especially after the disastrous earthquake, needs the funds migrant workers send back.
One government official told me during a recent visit to Nepal that migrant workers’ remittances have helped repay the country’s debt. Such a practice is the norm. A new report by JustJobs and commissioned by the Solidarity Center finds that extensive cross-border migration does not stimulate broad-based economic development or increase job opportunities.
The final assessment of earthquake-related destruction in Nepal will take time, but initial tallies point to hundreds of thousands of structures damaged or destroyed. As donations pour in from around the world, aid agencies, donor governments and the Nepal government, in particular, must consider how to rebuild without exacerbating the country’s reliance on exporting its labour.
Rather than following the post-Hurricane Katrina approach to reconstruction — one that pushed aside worker protections and benefits in the name of a national emergency — development and aid agencies should support the rebuilding of Nepali communities by addressing the root causes of the exploitative labour migration cycle.
This means creating decent jobs at home, and paying workers a living wage under safe conditions to rebuild their villages and their cities. Reconstruction contracts should go to companies that meet a high bar for labour standards—and comply with the International Labour Organization’s core conventions, including the right to form unions.
The focus should be on enabling entire communities of workers to make a real choice about labour migration, rather than perpetuating the economic hardships that often drive young men and women to risk their lives for work overseas. The government of Nepal must steward reconstruction and development by prioritizing its workers—its citizens.
Meanwhile, the ability of workers to unionise and bargain leads to better wages, safer working conditions, a reduction in egregious labour rights violations and improved economic equality. Through their unions, workers have a platform to advocate for planned investment in communities to foster sustainable and decent employment.
Rebuilding Nepal will require many years and large investments, and building a brighter future for the country’s many impoverished communities is the responsibility of more than Nepal’s government.
The responsibility to promote decent jobs and a true alternative to exploitative labour migration lies also with the many countries that have long benefitted from Nepali labour, as well as with governments and aid agencies that have expressed a commitment to alleviate poverty, labour exploitation, human trafficking and extreme economic inequality.
Sonia Mistry is senior Asia programme officer with the Solidarity Center, a non-profit international worker rights organisation based in Washington.
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