For Nabin Lama, leaving Nepal after his annual home leave to return to his construction job in Saudi Arabia is not easy. What makes the journey bearable – even enjoyable – is the can of beer he can drink on the flight from Kathmandu.
As soon as the seatbelt sign dinged off on a flight to Mumbai – from where he and a couple of hundred other Nepalis would take a connecting flight to Jeddah – Lama rose to look for the stewardess.
“Beer,” he bellowed, waving to her as she made her way down the aisle with a tray of fruit juice and water.
“It’s a tough life there. But at least we can earn something and help our family,” said Lama, 24, one hand on his passport, a white sticker across its green cover identifying a Nepali recruitment agency and his job.
“But we can’t drink there. So we have a beer on the flight. It feels good,” he said with a grin.
Lama comes from one of the world’s poorest countries. On-going political instability since a decade-long civil conflict ended in 2006 has discouraged investment, hampered growth and curbed job creation in Nepal, forcing hundreds of thousands to migrate overseas for work.
Most go to the Middle East, Malaysia and India, from where they send remittances which make up almost 30 percent of Nepal’s annual gross domestic product, according to the labour ministry.
Most migrants are in low-paid, unskilled jobs in construction, or work as security guards and domestic helpers.
Many face labour abuses including long hours, unsafe conditions and withholding of their wages and passports, say activists.
Many are trafficked, tricked into doing jobs that they did not sign up for, or under conditions and wages far worse than they were promised.
Their families are not that much better off. Elderly parents, as well as young women and children left behind in remote villages are themselves vulnerable to traffickers and racketeers, and struggle with everyday hardship.
“There are hardly any young men left behind in some districts,” said Nandita Baruah, deputy country representative at Asia Foundation, an international development organisation, in Kathmandu.
Families left behind may be duped into sending their children with traffickers posing as aid workers, or even selling their kidneys in India for money, she said.
“Migration is increasing the economic and social vulnerability of the country: people left behind are exposed to the harsh economic realities, and it makes them take greater risks, like trusting a trafficker or a kidney tout,” she said.
More than 3.8 million permits to work abroad were issued in the decade to 2015, representing about 14 percent of the current population, according to Nepal’s labour ministry.
This does not include the hundreds of thousands crossing the border into India, where they do not require a permit.
Nepal is forecast by the World Bank to have received about $6.6 billion in remittances in 2015. But the journey to an overseas job is fraught with challenges and usually leaves workers deep in debt.
Recruitment agencies that facilitate procuring a job and a work permit often charge 200,000 to 500,000 rupees ($1,860 to$4,660) per worker. That is several times the average income of about $730.
Fear of losing their job and not being able to pay back the money – usually borrowed from moneylenders, often underwritten by the family home, or from selling land – forces workers to tolerate harsh working conditions and low wages.
“Migration is important – most workers do well, earn a living, support their families,” Baruah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But the very first journey of migration leads to indebtedness. And they are bonded to their employers because of the huge burden of debt,” she said.
The Nepali government introduced a “zero-cost” migration policy last year, which makes the employer and recruiter responsible for costs. But the law is applied unevenly.
After female domestic workers in the Gulf countries complained of abuse, Nepal in 2012 banned women below the age of 30 from going there as domestic helps.
But many women produced fake papers to say they were older than 30, or were hired for other jobs.
Nepal has since lowered the age limit to 26 years.
In June Nepal banned its nationals from working in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria after 13 Nepali security guards were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul.
These measures to protect workers have had limited success.
“We know that when labour-sending countries try to protect their citizens through such bans, unscrupulous recruiters just use unregulated channels,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, head of Human Rights Watch for South Asia.
Instead, Nepal should monitor recruitment agencies, engage with host countries to enforce worker rights and ensure embassies provide emergency shelters and assistance, she said.
A spokesman for the labour ministry said Nepal aims to sign labour agreements with Saudi Arabia and Malaysia to improve workers’ rights, similar to those already agreed with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and South Korea.
“These agreements ensure the rights of our workers, minimum pay and other benefits and are effective to protect their interests,” Shiva Raj Sedai said.
The absence of working-age men was felt deeply in the days and weeks following twin earthquakes in Nepal last year which killed about 9,000 people, and damaged or destroyed more than 900,000 houses.
Women tending to children and elderly relatives were often not in a position to go to relief camps, claim compensation, or rebuild their homes quickly, said Lily Thapa, founder of Women for Human Rights in Kathmandu.
“Women whose husbands are working overseas are vulnerable and helpless, particularly during disasters,” Thapa said.
“There were many instances of sexual violence after the quakes directed at such women,” she said.
Teaching skills and creating jobs at home will be key to keeping emigration in check, Baruah said. The government also needs to prepare for the return of these workers in the event of an economic downturn or anti-migrant laws in the host countries.
There is already a slow trickle from the Middle East and Malaysia as jobs dry up because of lower oil prices. More than 10,000 Indians in Saudi Arabia who have been laid off are facing a “food crisis”, Indian officials have said.
“Imagine if the 1,500-1,700 men who leave each day from the Kathmandu airport start coming back,” Baruah said.
“Imagine what will happen when they come back to a country where there are no jobs.”
For Lama and his friends drinking beer on the flight, that is a distant prospect for now.
“I have a contract for one year,” he said. “After that, I will have to find another job somewhere.”
($1 = 107.264 Nepali rupees)