KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of Nepalis have been duped by recruitment agencies that send them overseas where they may be pushed into forced labour and crippling debt, Amnesty International said on Tuesday, accusing authorities of failing to protect migrant workers.
Around 20 percent of the impoverished Himalayan nation's almost 29 million people are migrant workers in the Middle East, as well as countries such as Malaysia and South Korea -- generating remittances that make up a quarter of Nepal's GDP.
A report by the London-based human rights group found many migrants were being forced to borrow money, with interest rates of up to 35 percent, to pay shady recruitment firms who ended up cheating them with false promises.
"Unscrupulous recruiters are getting away with destroying lives – illegally charging aspiring job-seekers exorbitant fees to get jobs abroad and then abandoning them overseas when things go wrong," James Lynch, Amnesty's Deputy Director for Global Issues, said in a statement.
"It is only when they leave Nepal that migrant workers find out that they have been deceived about everything from salary to working conditions. By then it is far too late and many end up with recruitment debts that may take the rest of their working lives to pay off."
Lynch accused the Nepali authorities of investing little to check these firms and protect its overseas migrant workers - many of whom are manual labourers or domestic workers - despite their significant contribution to the country's economy.
But government officials said recruitment agencies are required to make employers in Gulf states and Malaysia pay airfare and visa fees so that migrants are not cheated. They said errant firms were penalised.
Foreign Employment Department Director Mohan Adhikari said compensation is also given to victims deceived by recruitment firms, adding that last year this totalled around $500,000.
"We are doing all we can within our resources to address the problems of the migrant workers, who are victimised by recruitment companies," Adhikari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Amnesty's report, based on interviews with nearly 130 migrant workers and dozens of government officials, found victims paid on average $1,350 to recruitment firms for jobs abroad -- nearly double the limit permitted under Nepali law.
Once overseas, the migrants often had their passports confiscated by employers and did not get contracts -- leaving them open to exploitation such as long working hours, little freedom of movement, and even forced labour.
"Despite some bright ideas, a lack of political will combined with bureaucratic inertia means that businesses are still effectively free to exploit migrants," said Lynch.
"It is high time that this equation changes and migrant workers receive the protection they are entitled to."
Reporting by Gopal Sharma @imgsharma, Editing by Nita Bhalla and Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org