While Nepalis going for work abroad fall into the 18 to 40-year-old category, most of them are in their prime in terms of age. All workers who go abroad need to go through a mandatory health screening before their departure. They also need to go through a health check after reaching the destination country.
Despite this, the number of Nepalis losing their lives abroad has more than doubled in the past year alone. Just this week the mortal remains of three workers and the bodies of 24 others were repatriated from Malaysia.
According to the Foreign Employment Board, 1,242 people lost their lives working abroad in the fiscal year 2020/21. This means that during the year, three Nepalis died every day while working abroad. According to the board, 674 people had died in the previous year. In the past 13 years, 9,424 Nepalis have died working abroad.
The figures represent the tip of an iceberg, as the board does not maintain records on Nepalis who die while working without a permit. According to anecdotal evidence, on average two undocumented workers die every day.
In most cases, the cause of death is never ascertained as the body is sent without a proper postmortem. Workers say that most deaths are attributed to heart attack, suicide, road accident, illness, and workplace accidents.
Labor expert Ganesh Gurung says it is the responsibility of the state to make sure that proper post mortems are carried out to ascertain the cause of death.
“That the death rate among healthy workers is high means that we need to ascertain the risk carefully,” says Bhattarai, another labor expert.
Four years ago, after the Supreme Court ordered the government to find out why Nepalis were dying in numbers abroad, the government had formed a committee to look into the issue. However, the committee couldn’t come up with a clear conclusion.
Bhattarai, says that workers are also to blame for some of the deaths abroad. He says that there is a growing tendency among workers to refuse to take part in orientation related to their work, which might be precarious at times.
Recruiting agents want workers to leave as soon as possible after they secure a job for them. The workers are also in a hurry and don’t get adequate information about the climate, lifestyle, and laws of the destination country.
Some Nepalis die in their sleep due to the tendency to work in temperatures over 55 degrees during the day and sleep in the cold of an AC at night.
According to Bhattarai, another cause of death is stress. "Family members in Nepal pressure the workers to send money home," he says. "The pressure to make money has led to an increase in the number of deaths due to poor health care."
Labor experts say that the onus is on the government to sign bilateral agreements with host countries to ensure the safety of workers. "Concrete steps about the problem can only be taken at the highest level of government," said Bhattarai. "The embassy alone can’t do much."
The board, meanwhile, says it plans to teach workers about workplace safety, stress management, and health security before they depart for work.
Deputy Secretary Deenbandhu Subedi, says that training will be organized from this fiscal year. But experts question the effectiveness of such training without high-level bilateral agreements between the government and the host country.