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(New York) – The Nepali government should revoke its new ban on women under the age of 30 from working in Arab Gulf countries and instead should improve protections so domestic workers can migrate safely – such as by ensuring full monitoring and accountability of recruitment agencies in Nepal. At the same time governments in the Gulf should adopt long overdue labor protections and immigration reforms, including ending the discriminatory treatment of domestic workers, to combat abuse of Nepali and other migrant workers.
On August 9, 2012, Nepal’s cabinet approved a ban on women under the age of 30 from traveling to the Gulf for work. The ban is a response to several publicized cases of abuse of Nepali domestic workers, including long work hours, unpaid wages, and in some cases physical or sexual abuse. This recent move comes two years after Nepal lifted a 12-year ban on any women working in Middle Eastern countries.
“Nepal is right to be concerned about its migrant domestic workers, but imposing a ban on women under 30 from traveling to the Gulf does not solve the problem and discriminates against young women”, said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A better strategy would be to crack down on abusive recruitment practices, ensure that women migrate with an enforceable contract in hand, and equip embassies to respond quickly to complaints of abuse.”
Official Nepali emigration figures state that as many as 1,000 migrants pass daily through Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu; many others leave by land through the porous Indian border. Many domestic workers have positive experiences and together send home billions of dollars in remittances each year to Asia. Others face abuse.
Human Rights Watch has documented discrimination and abuse against Asian domestic workers in the Middle East for several years. Labor laws in the Gulf exclude domestic workers from basic protections guaranteed other workers such as a weekly rest day, limits to hours of work, and compensation in case of work-related injury. Restrictive immigration rules make it difficult for domestic workers to escape from abusive employers.
A ban on work in the Gulf may drive women desperate for work to migrate through irregular channels, putting them at greater risk of exploitation and trafficking, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch interviewed Nepali domestic workers in Saudi Arabia during the previous ban and found that they were especially likely to encounter abuse. They had no information about their rights, no employment contracts, and were more likely to migrate with illegal recruiters who left them heavily indebted. If they faced abuse from their employers, their precarious legal status made it more difficult for them to approach or receive assistance from authorities.
Instead of a blanket ban on young women that denies them important employment opportunities, Nepal's government should work with other labor-sending governments to demand stronger protections for migrant workers in the Gulf, Human Rights Watch said. It urged the Nepali government to improve training of migrant workers, to monitor recruitment agencies rigorously, and to ensure migrant women know where to get help if they need it.
“Governments in the Gulf should heed the concern about abuse against domestic workers in their countries,” said Varia. “They should move quickly to include domestic workers in labor laws, prosecute abusive employers, and improve cooperation with labor-sending countries.”
Nepal has obligations under its interim constitution and international law to protect women from discrimination, including in employment. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Nepal ratified in 1991, requires states to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment. Human Rights Watch called on the Nepali government to ratify the International Labor Organization Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.