When migrant laborers at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus raised their voices, striking over pay and working conditions, they were treated to arrests, beaten, or in some cases deported—flung back home in despair and in often debt. Within 24 hours after the New York Times reported on this modern form of indentured servitude, NYU issued an apology to the workers, many of whom hail from Nepal. While NYU president John Sexton might tout this Abu Dhabi project as “an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, the world” one should ask: Whose world? Transformation on whose terms?
The NYU story is positive inasmuch as the institution has attempted to take responsibility for the conditions of life its expansion visions have produced. But this is only one example in a sea of similar stories.
Consider Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. After a particularly bad spell on construction sites in the summer of 2013, when more Nepalis than usual died of cardiac arrest, heat stroke, work-related injuries, and suicide while suffering to build this palace of sport, news outfits began following these stories more closely. The Guardian reported that more than 400 Nepali workers have died since Qatar won the bid in 2010, but later reports indicate this was likely a serious under-representation. And Nepalis are not alone. The United Nations estimates 36 million South Asians live and work outside of their communities. Many of them, too, never make it home.
Nepali lives are on the line in the service of industries in which they have made great investments but have little control.
Other migrant laborers do survive, of course, making enough money to remit some and encourage new generations to depart from Himalayan villages for vertiginous landscapes of steel, scaffolding, and the skeletons of skyscrapers shimmering in desert sun. Contracting companies, however, often fail to pay wages for months on end. As some workers wait, their visas can expire, and they many go into debt in the process of simply meeting basic needs. Often their families back in Nepal owe money to middlemen who facilitate recruitment for a fee.
Such labor practices and attendant kafala employment systems, which bind immigrant workers to sponsoring companies, are under scrutiny. Yet these practices continue in what amounts to a form of flesh exchange. It is common for workers to put in 12-plus hour days, six or seven days a week, in excruciating temperatures to earn something resembling what they had initially been promised. They are also routinely stripped of their passports, even though they are told this will not happen. Despite moments of global outcry, there lives a deep ambivalence in people because migrant employment offers economic opportunities, or at least the specter of opportunity, often unavailable in Nepal.
The factors that have driven nearly four million Nepalis (in a country of 30 million) into migrant labor are linked to the social suffering and personal scars brought on by a brutal civil war (1996-2006), transitions from a Hindu state to a secular republic (2008), and ongoing political instability. Yet the dynamics of Nepali migrant labor are more complex than any political timeline.
Pressure to migrate is tremendous. There is the need for cash to pay for family members’ school fees or health care, to pay off loans (sometimes with accrued interest several generations deep), and to escape cast-based bonded labor. Individuals also want to escape poverty, forms of cultural discrimination, and the lack of economic opportunities a traditional village can represent. Moral and social pressures are placed upon the young and able-bodied to migrate so that those who remain behind can benefit. Remittances now officially account for more than a quarter of Nepal’s GNP; half of all Nepalis have access to such foreign-earned funds. While some remittances are channeled into necessities or community development efforts, significant resources are spent on new forms of consumption. Imagine years spent toiling in the Gulf so that a nephew back in Kathmandu might have an iPhone.
I recall a conversation in an airport bathroom in Qatar with two attendants, both young Nepali women, one married. How were they finding Qatar? They explained how an agent made their visas, helped them find jobs, and now manages their work. Though the agent doesn’t pay very much, the women send whatever cash they can back home. "We decided it was better for me to go for foreign income than him,” the married woman said. “For men, sometimes there is more danger." She then spoke of the precariousness of it all, including fake recruiting agencies and corrupt local brokers.
The other woman told me about a cousin who, after having been recruited into a Maoist regiment at 16 and having made it through the war, killed himself after six months of hard labor in Dubai: “At least during the war we were in our own place, breathing our air, drinking our water. Being in arab,” as the Middle East is referred to in colloquial Nepali,“working so hard, he went crazy.” The literal expression she used was that his heart-mind had broken.
What is the price of a person under such circumstances? How much is enough to compensate for premature death, families fragmented, distinct social ecologies transformed?
Even as millions of Nepalis migrate in search of wage labor, millions still do not, creating greater socioeconomic divides. The Nepali state has made it continuously easier for citizens to work abroad because the government stands to benefit. Never mind the hundreds of young men and women leaving Tribhuvan International Airport each day and the coffins that return.
While one might not think the conditions of Nepali migrants laboring in the Gulf have much to do with the rarefied world of elite mountaineering, they do. Consider the fate of the 16 Sherpas who died in an avalanche on Mount Everest in April, the deadliest single day on the mountain. Nepali lives are on the line in the service of industries in which they have made great investments but have little control. And while “sherpa” might now describe everything from high-tech polar fleece to someone who is a dependable workhorse, Sherpas, the people of Nepal’s Solu-Khumbu region, bear the weight of too many lives lost on mountains some say should never be climbed.
In these differential industries of risk and serious games, strikes such as the curtailment of the 2014 Everest season and the Abu Dhabi protests tend to be overturned in the name of economic interests. I recall the look on a Sherpa’s face as a friend videotaped him just before the avalanche on the icefall. He looked nervous. Later we would hear from his mother, wondering what will become of her now that the son who supported her is gone. The initial NYU story quotes a Nepali immigrant who labored on the Abu Dhabi campus until last year. Ramkumar Rai, whose last six months of wages are now 16 months overdue, was quoted as saying, “When will the money come? If the money comes, it will be OK.”
But will it? What is the price of a person under such circumstances? How much is enough to compensate for premature death, families fragmented, distinct social ecologies transformed? I am left to contemplate the global ethical and economic dilemmas of the differential value placed on human lives, even as I acknowledge the specific and deeply ambivalent trajectories of a country and its people.