Dropping Like Flies

Jun 23, 2010

On average, two dead Nepal workers return every day in coffins from the Gulf and Malaysia. Why?


Massive construction projects in Saudi Arabia require an insatiable number of migrant workers from developing nations such as Nepal to keep costs low, and the pace of construction fast.

Massive construction projects in Saudi Arabia require an insatiable number of migrant workers from developing nations such as Nepal to keep costs low, and the pace of construction fast.

Photo credit: Al-Jauhara Al-Mohammed

One drizzly afternoon in early 2008, Karuna Subba of Chandragadhi, Jhapa was listlessly squatting on her haunches outside the Tribhuvan International Airport’s arrival terminal. Dozens of migrant workers, each of them rolling trolleys laden with heavy luggage, strode past her. Karuna steadfastly waited.

After the flow of passengers from Saudi Arabia died out, a casket was brought out – with the body of Karuna’s husband, Mani Kumar Subba, inside it. There were no tears to greet her husband. Mani Kumar had died in Saudi Arabia in September the previous year. Karuna had cried her heart out then, at what seemed like a cruel joke: The day before he died, Mani Kumar had called from a friend’s birthday party to tell her he would be coming home two weeks later.

Following the tragic news, Karuna ran from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the employment agency that had hired her husband. She was told her husband was found dead in a swimming pool, and it would take a while for the body to be brought back. No more questions were asked.

On average, two dead Nepalis return every day in coffins from the much-vaunted destinations  for  economic  migrations.

Scenes such as these are played out daily at the international airport. On average, two dead Nepalis return in coffins every day from the much-vaunted destinations for economic migrations. In 2009 alone, at least 600 Nepalis died in the Gulf countries, and in Malaysia. Unfortunately, for the families left behind in Nepal, it is an agonisingly long wait. They run from pillar to post to bring the bodies of their loved ones back, a process which at times takes up to six months.

Pushpa Bhattarai, section officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says there are several possible reasons for such deaths: lack of “pre-departure orientation” (which leads to “road accidents”), lack of good accommodation, unhealthy lifestyles, workload, depression, and the “unbearably hot temperature” which have extreme consequences on Nepalis, who are mostly from the hills.

In 2009, the death of 174 Nepalis working abroad was attributed to cardiac arrest. But there is a darker side to this attribution. Most of those who died seem to have died in their sleep. According to Bhattarai, this is because most labourers work in extremely hot desert temperatures of 50 to 55 degree Celsius, and when their bodies cannot adjust to their air-conditioned rooms immediately, some die.

Many deaths are also attributed to road accidents. Bhattarai explains: “In the Middle East, normal highway speeds are around 140 kilometres per hour. Most Nepalis are not used to such speeds and try crossing the road the same way they do back home.” A proper orientation to foreign country-bound workers can prevent this. But these are not the only reasons, he says. “There have been murders among Nepalis and some have committed suicides due to family tensions back home.”

It may be accepted that death is a part of life, but for the families of most migrant workers, it is after their loved ones’ demise that the real struggles begin. In the Gulf, where labour rights are practically non-existent and the notions of accountability and transparency are still foreign, the process of sending the dead bodies and claiming dues and insurances fall under the duties of the Nepali Embassy in the country. But there is a long way to go for the Nepali bureaucrats in the Gulf to execute these processes.

Applications submitted to the Ministry’s legal section speak volumes of the tragedies that have befallen on the families of the migrants. A gloomy narrative emerges as you flip through the files: someone’s dead son, someone’s murdered husband… In most cases, the family loses its sole income earner. Even after the prolonged process of transportation of the bodies and its eventual cremation, the complicated process of procuring the insurance money and the due salary takes a toll on most families.

Fifty-six-year-old Lila Subedi of Jhapa lost two sons to foreign shores. In April 2008, Bhim Bahadur Subedi, who had been working with the Al Mojaji Company in Saudi Arabia, died in a road accident. Six months later, Dharma Subedi died in Malaysia. A subsistence farmer, Lila says he spent Rs. 150,000 to send two of his five sons abroad. Now, after their deaths, Lila has to take care of both families: Bhim left behind a four-year-old son and a 22-year-old wife, while Dharma had two daughters, aged 11 and five, and a 32-year-old wife.

Lila’s youngest son, Pushpa Subedi, teaches at a school in Sundarijal. The 30-year-old now helps his father navigate Kathmandu’s bureaucratic maze: there is insurance to claim, dues to procure. The deaths of his brothers abroad have destroyed the family. “After seeing the death of my two elder brothers, my family will never allow me to go abroad,” he says.


Deepak Adhikari also blogs at Deepak’s Diary.


Relate Story:

Persian Pipe Dreams: Hope or Hoax?