Workers without frontier, working sans safety net

- Roshan Sedhai, Kathmandu
Workers without frontier, working sans safety net

Nov 26, 2014-

When Shyam Kumar Shrestha met with a horrendous work-related accident in Kuala Lumpur in January 2011, little did he know that the worst had just begun. Any Malaysian co-worker in his place would have got the best of medical facilities as guaranteed by the local labour law. But Shrestha, who is originally from Gorkha, did not get such treatment from his employer, the PDC Cargo Company.

Shrestha, who sustained multiple fractures in his right leg when a car rammed into him while he was loading cargo at work, was hastily discharged from hospital, sacked from his job and repatriated to Nepal. Three years on, Shrestha is a crippled man who has sold much of his meagre assets to manage funds to treat his disability. The crippled leg, which doctors say could have been healed to almost its original state with slightly more advanced care, continues to remind him that Nepali workers who suffer workplace accidents in Malaysia are not accorded the treatment needed.

“I wasn’t even treated like a human being. They left me to die,” Shrestha says.

Stories such as Shrestha’s have become all too common among Nepali workers in Malaysia. Records from Nepal’s mission in Malaysia show at least nine Nepalis die in the country every week and almost double that number get injured in work-related and traffic accidents.

But nearly 80 percent of these workers do not receive proper medical care or compensation because the Malaysian law does not adequately protect foreign workers. Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1952), the labour law that governs the rights of migrant workers in Malaysia, only families of workers who die in industrial or traffic accidents are entitled to compensation.

The law also does not cover those foreign workers who die away from the job. Eighty percent of Nepali workers die due to “other” causes, which means they are not compensated in accordance with the provisions of the Act. And even those who are entitled to relief get very little or none of the amount due to them owing to the weak monitoring of the law.

Under the law, a foreign worker can get only up to MR 23,000 for a work-related accident--and that too, only in cases of ‘permanent disablement’. That is a pittance compared to what Malaysian workers can avail of. They are covered by the Employees’ Social Security Act (1969) that “offers a long-term disabilities pension scheme”.

The situation is even more appalling in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, where foreign workers are compensated depending on whether they do a skilled or non-skilled job. For Nepalis doing low-end jobs in the region, there is no real safety net. Krishna Prasad Sarki, a resident of Gate 9 in Sindhupalchok, died of “natural” causes in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, last November. His employer, the AL Tawi for Ready Mix, provided his family with a mere SR 3,355 as compensation. His relatives told the Post that the amount was short even to pay for the costs incurred while processing the claim.

The Nepali Embassy in Riyadh says nearly 25 percent of the 251 deceased workers in the kingdom received Rs 150,000 on an average in compensation last year, while 75 percent received little or no relief at all. And this even though the Gulf countries have far better insurance schemes, pay benefits and compensation schemes for their local workers than in most European countries, say experts.

Data from the Nepal government show that aorund 6,000 people have lost their lives in the Gulf over the past two decades. At least 85 percent of those deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while the rest occurred in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. The embassies do not have reliable data on the injured workers, whose numbers are believed to be much higher.

“Since the labour laws of these countries do not cover non-accidental causes, a majority of the workers who died natural deaths, of heart attacks or those who committed suicide do not get insurance benefits or compensation,” says Uday Raj Pandey, Nepali Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

When a foreign worker dies at the workplace or in traffic accidents in Saudi Arabia, their family members are asked to send a relationship verification certificate along with other documents, which the embassies then forward to the concerned companies. “We request the company to voluntarily provide some compensation to the families of those dying of non-accidental causes, explaining that the families they leave behind are very poor,” Pandey says. But the companies do not comply with such requests. Officials here say they are aware of the injustice faced by the families of workers who die of causes not related to workplace accidents but they cannot do anything unless the concerned governments agree to change the law.

Nepal, on its part, has made it compulsory for outbound workers to buy insurance policy worth Rs 2,130 for the Gulf countries and Rs 2,700 for Malaysia. This brings the family of a migrant who dies Rs 550,000 while those who suffer injuries can claim compensation depending on the severity. Many workers are still sent off abroad without insurance.

Labour Ministry spokesperson Buddhi Bahadur Khadka says there should be higher-level efforts to exert pressure on the host countries to pay significant compensation to all workers irrespective of the cause of their death or accident. He wants the countries to also guarantee perks such as health benefits and gratuity.

Published: 27-11-2014 09:10

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