Iraq’s ‘Hell’ Still Lures Workers

KATHMANDU – Many jobless Nepalis are still heading to Iraq to look for jobs, despite the recent spate of kidnappings and beheadings and a ban imposed by the government after the U.S. invasion of Baghdad last year.

"We have been told that they pay us three times more in Iraq than they pay in, say, Kuwait," Bishal Thapa told IPS as he waited for his turn standing in a crowd of youths seeking jobs in the Gulf through a recruiting agent.

"We should be fine there, because the security situation in Nepal is not any better either," said the 19-year-old youth, from Biratnagar district, who was referring to the Maoists’ insurgency in the country.

The Maoists have been fighting since 1996 to abolish the monarchy and set up a communist republic in the world’s only Hindu kingdom. The revolt has claimed more than 10,000 lives, scared away investors and tourists and threatened the stability of multiparty democracy set up in 1990.

For youths like Thapa, Nepal now offers little hope and tens of thousands of youths like him are literally fleeing, or preparing to flee, their homeland, looking for lucrative job offers either in the Middle East or East Asia.

Out of the 500,000 Nepalese working abroad, nearly 350,000 work in the Middle East, while the rest are in East Asia and Europe.

Overseas, the Nepalis work mainly as security guards, truck drivers, carpenters and manual laborers according to figures made available by the Department of Labor.

Meantime, labor recruiters in Kathmandu say over 17,000 Nepalis have already landed in Iraq, while 35,000 are waiting to get there.

Of them, 30,000 have been stranded in Mumbai, India, while 5,000 are waiting for a green light from the Nepali government, Nirmal Gurung, president of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA) told IPS.

The Nepali government imposed a ban on work in Iraq after the U.S. invasion last year, yet many of its nationals took jobs with companies in Gulf countries and are working in Iraq’s construction business.

In recent months, dozens of foreigners have been seized in Iraq, many of them truck drivers working for companies delivering supplies to U.S. forces. Some have been released, but others have been killed.

But private labor recruiters in big cities like Kathmandu and Biratnagar are clandestinely sending workers to Iraq via Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf.

And many in the officialdom of the Himalayan kingdom are not complaining.

Given the fact of what is left of Nepal’s economy, because of the Maoist insurgency, remittances from Nepali workers in the Gulf and East Asia have now overtaken the country’s foreign currency earnings from exports and tourism combined.

Nepalis abroad collectively send an impressive 100 billion Nepali rupees (about $1 billion U.S.) in remittance every year. That amount is equivalent to Nepal’s annual budget – just last month the government announced an annual budget of 102.4 billion Nepali rupees ($1.32 billion U.S.).

In Kuwait, for instance, a Nepali driver earns on the average of $300 U.S. a month. But the worker is able to earn three times the amount if he goes to Iraq.

But labor recruiters in the capital refused to tell IPS whether they were sending workers to Iraq in defiance of the government ban.

"We have positions open for 200 Nepalis in Kuwait," said Nissar Ahmad, an Indian labor recruiter who has set up shop in Kathmandu.

When pressed by IPS whether he was sending Nepalis to Iraq, he said: "They [the Nepali workers] come to us and say ‘I want a decent salary, an indoor job and I’m ready to go to hell for it,’ so what do you want us to do?"

"Are you blaming us, the government or the Maoists for sending workers to Iraq?" he asked.

And the would-be Iraq workers from Nepal are not complaining.

"The situation at home is very bad, so I am ready to take all kinds of risks," said 30-year-old Tek Bahadur Esmail.

"There’s danger everywhere, but there’s also money to be made," he told IPS.

Esmail has to support a family of seven had needs to spend at least 95,000 Nepali rupees ($2,049 U.S.) to get to Iraq via Kuwait.

Twenty-four-year-old Yam Lama, too, shared Esmail’s views.

He recently deserted his army job in the Indian Gurkha Rifles and came back home to Nepal.

"I didn’t feel like working for the Indians. I’m willing to work as a security guard if I can get a good salary in Iraq," he said.