Print Edition - 2015-04-11  |  On Saturday

Middle men muddy the waters

  • According to Qatari law, Nepali migrant workers should not have to pay a dime to procure jobs in the Gulf state, but because the recruiting agencies have tweaked the recruiting process to skim off labour deals, the workers end up paying huge sums for the
- Roshan Sedhai
Middle men muddy the waters

Apr 10, 2015-

Earlier this week, Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al-Khulaifi, the Qatari Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, and his team came to Kathmandu to talk about the labour issues between Nepal and Qatar. Minister Al-Khulaifi was feted and offered high praise by many high-ranking Nepali officials. Among the many labour-trade issues talked about during the bilateral meeting was what is known as “Zero-Cost Migration.”

Zero-Cost Migration essentially means that workers in labour-providing countries who seek jobs abroad do not have to pay a fee to ensure that they are hired by companies in labour-importing countries. But Nepali workers today pay anywhere from Rs 70,000 to 100,000 to be guaranteed work in Qatar.

During the press conference after the meeting, Minister of Labour and Employment Tek Bahadur Gurung talked about many things but didn’t say why Nepalis had to pay so much to find work at a Zero-Cost Migration destination like Qatar.

“The government does not punish the unscrupulous recruiting agencies, nor has our ministry scrapped the provision that asks outbound workers to pay Rs 70,000, in recruiting charge, to go to Qatar or why the workers have to pay Rs 20,000 to agents as service charge even when the employers are supposed to bear that expense,” says Ganesh Gurung, a foreign employment expert.

The two governments have vowed to rein in the dishonest agencies to make Zero-Cost Migration to Qatar a reality. That, however, looks like an uphill task, given how the recruiting agencies both in the labour-sending countries and Qatar have been calling the shots, instead of the governments. What looks even more difficult to remedy are the problems inherent in the workings of the layers of authorised and unscrupulous agencies and agents.

Last month, Karma Bir Gharti Magar of Sworgadwarikhal VDC of Pyuthan spent Rs 100,000 to go to Qatar. He started his employment process through a district-based agent, who processed his document through a recruiting agency in Kathmandu. Magar was fortunate to have stumbled upon a one-agent deal. Not all migrant workers are as lucky. Many of them have to wade through as many as five layers of agents, most of them unauthorised, who ask to be paid anywhere from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000, depending on the role the agents play. Many workers pay a recruitment fee to these lower-tier agents, while most directly pay the larger recruiting agencies in the Capital, who then provide a commission to the agents on the ground.

“The first-layer agent is usually a worker’s own neighbour or a distant relative or even a close relative, because it is easy for the workers to trust them,” says Ganesh Gurung. “These agents then hand over the passport to another agent in the district headquarters, who then passes it on to another agent based in the nearest city, and it goes to yet another agent, before finally ending up at the bigger recruiting agency in Kathmandu.”

There are 760 recruiting agencies in the Capital and a similar number of registered agents across the country. Some 400 agencies send workers to Qatar on the basis of contracts they procure from the human resource agencies in Qatar that have been licensed by the Qatari government.

According to provisions in Qatari law, when a company in Qatar needs a fresh infusion of workers, it seeks a human resource agency in the country to tap into the worker pool in poor countries such as Nepal. The company pays no less than 11,000 riyal to the HR agency; that money is supposed to pay for everything from the visa-processing cost for the workers to the air-tickets. A part of that payment is also supposed to trickle down, as commission, to the labour-recruiting agencies in Nepal.

But because there are so many people in South Asia willing to find jobs in Qatar, this procurement-commission system now works in a completely different way than was originally intended, say agencies and agents.

“A few recruitment agencies here are given some commission by Qatari HR firms, but others instead pay their Qatari counterparts for handing them labour contracts that allow them to ship workers abroad,” says Bal Bahadur Tamang, former chairperson of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies.

In the early days, before the trickle of Nepali workers heading to Qatar became a huge swell, there were many agencies here who used to get such commission. But even so, right from beginning, the Nepali agencies still charged the outbound workers around Rs 70,000 for their services. The permission for collecting that fee from the workers was actually granted by the Nepali government. Now, not only are the Qatari HR firms not paying a commission to their Nepali counterparts, the local agencies have to pay a commission to Qataris instead to land the contracts.

This turn in the way things are conducted took place when more and more Nepali agencies got into the business. And with similar agencies in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also getting into the game, the Qatari HR firms soon realised that they held all the negotiating power. In fact, the labour agencies in the sub-continent actually started saying that they would be happy to pay the Qatari HR firms money if they were given labour-demand contracts. For the agencies here, all they had to do was pass on some of that cost to the outbound-workers, who didn’t mind paying the fee. On top of that fee, they also charged a little bit more and that is why today it has become the norm that Nepali outbound workers pony up as much as Rs 70,000 to get to Qatar. In the end, the Qatari HR firms pocketed the money that was supposed to go into the processing costs for getting the workers to the job sites.

“Today, the competition for landing the labour-demand contracts is so fierce, if a local agency offers the Qatari HR firms Rs 5,000 per head in commission, another comes up with double that figure to acquire the contract,” says Tamang. “In effect, the agencies here have ceded the leverage to the Qatari firms.”

Today, the Qatari HR firms not only play off a Nepali agency against other Nepali agencies, they also play off Nepali agencies against those in Bangladesh and Pakistan. This has created a race to the bottom. To sweeten the deal for getting the labour-demand contracts, the agents in the South Asian countries try to find workers who are willing to work for lower salaries. And contract packages made of such lower-salary deals are then peddled by the Qatari HR firms to the companies that need manpower. So when all is said and done, the Nepali workers end up paying the fees that they actually don’t need to—according to Qatari provisions—and also end up working for lower wages.   

Minister Gurung says this situation is unlikely to change unless  both  the governments work together to untie the Gordian knot.

“Since the problem is a product of market malpractice in both the labour-sending countries and the receiving one, it should be tackled collectively,” says Minister Gurung.

In the recent bilateral meeting in Kathmandu, representatives from the Nepali government and their Qatari counterparts agreed to come up with measures to monitor the recruitment process and blacklist dishonest agencies; but because there is so much at stake for the recruiting agencies, both here and abroad, and because the Nepali workers don’t know what is happening in the recruitment game, things will probably not change any time soon.

“The only way to resolve this problem would be to allow hiring to happen only through a government-to-government channel,” says Ganesh Gurung. “But since the current system benefits so many middle men, and because the companies looking for labour end up getting cheaper labour with the way things are now, Zero-Cost Recruitment may never see the light of day. The governments don’t really care either way.”

Published: 11-04-2015 08:48

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