“I could not eat the remaining food that had been eaten by all of the family from the same big plate, so I survived on bread and black tea for 15 days,” recalls Maya Gurung, a Nepalese migrant worker, describing her first job as a domestic worker in Kuwait.
Maya never wanted to leave home. She was happily working at a daycare centre in her village in Chundevi, Kathmandu, Nepal when she found herself forced to seek higher-paid employment abroad, to pay-off her husband’s debts. She recalls the anguish of having to leave behind her 17-month-old daughter, 5-year-old son, and husband.
Globally, there are estimated to be between 53 million and 100 million domestic workers.[i]
The 2007 Foreign Employment Act not only ends discrimination based on sex but also adopts special measures to guarantee women’s security and rights when seeking jobs abroad
Many are poor and work to send home remittances to their families. According to the World Bank, the money sent home by migrants is three times the size of official development assistance and remittances to developing countries are estimated to reach $372 billion in 2011.[ii]
According to UN Women, there are approximately 40,000 Nepali migrant workers in Kuwait alone, 80 per cent of whom are women.[iii]
When Maya arrived in Kuwait, her passports and other documents were confiscated by her employer. She worked from 5 a.m. until after midnight most days and was not allowed to take breaks. She was only paid 10 or 15 dinar – a fraction of the 35 dinar she had been promised before migrating – and most of which she used to phone her children.
“I was fed up, helpless and unable to return without a passport and papers. I was very desperate,” says Maya, who left that job, only to find herself on the street, with no money or documentation.
Her situation is typical of many Nepali women who leave uninformed, in search of brighter economic prospects, explains Manju Gurung, a founding member of Pourakhi, a non-governmental organization for female migrant workers in Nepal. Many from Nepal migrate to Gulf countries. Gurung says employers systematically keep workers’ documents, restrict their mobility, and worse.
They run an emergency shelter in Kathmandu, where women who have just returned home with nothing can live until they are back on their feet again. As of April of this year, Pourakhi also has a small information booth set up at Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport .There, volunteers are on-hand 24-hours a day, to provide information or take returning migrant workers to the shelter. The have a hotline and also provide hands-on psycho-social counseling to potential and returning migrant workers.
“On the basis of their needs, sometimes we have to provide medical service, counseling, legal support,” explains Manju. “Also we have these reintegration programmes and until now we have provided more than 700 women with entrepreneurship training.” She says that as a result of that training, 608 of those women have become entrepreneurs, earning between $8000 and $16,000 Nepali rupees annually, which she calls a “moderate income” in Nepal.
Pourakhi runs a Child Education Fund to support the children of exploited migrant workers. And through a national radio telecast, the NGO also raises awareness with a radio programme targeting rural youth.
UN Women supported the establishment of Pourakhi, which is now a strong voice in Government committees on foreign employment, and is now actively lobbying for the rights and entitlements of women migrant workers at home and abroad. UN Women has also initiated a partnership with the Pravashi Nepali Coordination Committee, which has a large network among Nepali migrant workers across Gulf countries.
Manju says Pourakhi has successfully advocated for policies, laws and mechanisms to ensure the protection of the rights of women migrant workers in Nepal. “Now we have another challenge … effective implementation of this Foreign Employment Act and regulations.”
The 2007 Foreign Employment Act not only ends discrimination based on gender but also adopts special measures to guarantee women’s security and rights when seeking jobs abroad.
Upon her return to Nepal, Maya was helped by Pourakhi two years ago. After serving 14 months in jail for being undocumented in Kuwait, because her original employers had kept her passport, she managed to get deported back to Nepal with the help of the Nepali Embassy. She was approached by Pourakhi, which provided her with shelter and paralegal help. She got back on her feet and has since been working in Pourakhi’s training centre.
“Now that I am a Pourakhi member, I see a ray of hope,” says Maya. “Now we know that domestic work is also work and it helps not only ourselves and our family, but also to develop the nation; so we are firmly claiming our rights and entitlements.”
- #AskUNWomen Twitter chat on the protection of domestic workers
- Checklist to Protect and Support Domestic Workers
- This year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development to focus on the protection of migrant domestic workers
- Mona Saad: An Egyptian domestic worker’s journey to leadership
- Regional conference sets the stage for advancing rights of women migrant workers in Asia