Why we journalists have not been able to report on the exploitation of migrant workers

April 18, 2022

Nepalese journalist Hom Karki, has been researching and reporting on labour migration, human trafficking, forced labour and recruitment practices since 2009. He discussed with us the financial exploitation and mental abuse faced by Nepali migrant workers and their living conditions in the Gulf region.

Photo: Migrant workers in their camp © Hom Karki

Nepalese journalist Hom Karki, has been researching and reporting on labour migration, human trafficking, forced labour and recruitment practices since 2009. He discussed with us the financial exploitation and mental abuse faced by Nepali migrant workers and their living conditions in the Gulf region.

50 for Freedom (50FF): Hom Karki, can you tell us how you became interested in labour issues and migrant workers?

Hom Karki (HK): I started reporting for a local newspaper, ‘Hetauda Sandesh’ which was published in my hometown Hetauda, some 90km from Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Hetauda is an industrial town that has several dozens of factories, some of which belong to multinational companies. Labour disputes would frequently take place inside those industries. Such incidents slowly increased my interest in industrial labour relations. Finally, I migrated to Kathmandu to pursue a Masters Degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. There, I worked for ‘Kantipur’ Daily, the largest selling daily newspaper of Nepal. Kantipur was also publishing a weekly edition targeting Nepalis living in the Gulf region.

Every year, nearly 500,000 young people join the labour force in Nepal. Since there are limited employment opportunities at home, they are left with no other option than to migrate to Gulf countries or Malaysia. In almost every household in Nepal, there is at least one person who has gone to work abroad, showing how significant this issue is for the country. It was part of every family’s story, which aroused my interest to cover these issues. The media should not ignore this reality. Luckily, I got the opportunity to work on a topic that I am passionate about, i.e. migrant workers and their families.


50FF: You were a correspondent in the Gulf region for several years, what are your main takeaways from this experience?

HK: I have been reporting on Nepali migrant workers since 2009. In 2012, I moved to Qatar, which allowed me to observe migrant workers issues in the Gulf region first-hand. I started field-based reporting on Nepali workers’ conditions in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Nearly 1.2 million Nepalis are working in these six countries. Among them, 150,000 are domestic workers. Many workers are kept under the strict control of companies or individual employers that do not fully comply with the local labour laws and impose their own rules. The monitoring of workers’ camps and workplaces by labour inspectors is very poor. Workers are not paid the salaries as per their work. We can say that they are given salaries that are enough for their survival only. Every time I would see Nepalis working outdoors, I would wonder how those workers could even stand under the scorching temperatures because they surely had not worked under such a harsh climate back in Nepal, which has a cooler climate.


50FF: You have been documenting forced labour for several years, what are the challenges you face as a journalist covering these issues?

HK: Terms like ‘forced labour’ or ‘bonded labour’ are very complicated and weighty words. If we pay attention to the phases of the recruitment process, we can easily identify such workers who have been the victim of forced labour practices.

Reporting about their plights is easier said than done. It’s difficult to talk to them in their camps. They come out to meet journalists secretly. Sharing their troubles with journalists can mean losing their jobs. Just speaking against the company can result in a situation leading to their deportation. They can be accused of trying to tarnish the image of their country of destination. Therefore, we have to be cautious even for workers’ safety. It is also difficult to collect documents and pieces of evidence, as some workers do not have any documents, or cannot access them.

Threats from recruitment agencies and employers are common. As a journalist covering such crucial matters, you are constantly worried about potential cases filed against you or other legal hassles. Even migrant workers are reluctant to share their plights or troubles, worried that this might potentially damage their social reputation or negatively impact their family members back home. Alleged exploitative employers do not want to share their side of the story and try their best to avoid the media. It is also difficult to reach local authorities and foreign missions who are reluctant to discuss these issues with journalists. All of the above makes it particularly challenging to report objectively and maintain balance.


50FF: You have recently participated in setting up a dedicated network of journalists working on labour and employment issues. Why did you participate in this network and how do you benefit from it?

HK: In Nepal, only a small group of journalists are specialized in labour and employment issues. To report on these, one has to be familiar with local, national, regional and international labour policies, laws and regulations. This is why together with other journalists covering these issues, we created the Labour Employment Journalists Group (LEJOG) in 2019, so that journalists could help each other, share sectoral knowledge, discuss contemporary issues and promote our common interest. As a result, more and more journalists are joining the group.

The LEJOG has also collaborated with the International Labour Organization to organise trainings for journalists in Nepal and destination countries. The trainings allow participants to exchange on how to report on the fair recruitment process, forced labour and other issues that journalists often find complicated to report to the general public.

In a bid to encourage more journalists to report on such matters and support those already covering these issues, we have also set up an annual journalism award, rewarding the best reporting of the year. For the first edition in 2021, we issued a call inviting journalists to submit their works published in radio, television, print and online media. LEJOG received 76 entries coming from 22 journalists. An independent jury, gathering experts in the field of labour, employment and journalism selected the most impactful and responsible work among the stories submitted. The winners were announced in October 2021.

In the future, we plan to collaborate with other national and international agencies as well as the concerned governments.


50FF: You have facilitated several trainings on forced labour issues with journalists based on the ILO media toolkit on reporting on forced labour and fair recruitment in its version adapted to Nepalese context. Tell us more about this experience.

HK: When I look back on my learning experience and reporting on forced labour for 12 years, I find it was a roller-coaster ride. Now, I feel delighted to share my experience and whatever I have learned with fellow journalists reporting on those same issues. The first training was in November 2019, followed by a refresher training in November 2021. These activities included ILO guidelines explaining theoretical aspects, as well as my experiences as a reporter. Such guidelines made it easier for me to clearly define these issues to journalists. Both theoretical and practical understanding of these issues can help in producing reports of great impact. Reporters in Nepal are quite energetic and passionate. They want to produce quality reports. They also want to give their best while reporting. However, they often stumble because of a lack of technical knowledge of the particular field, which is reflected in their reporting that lacks a proper flow of information and depth of the subject matter. Even the research can sometimes be incomplete and shallow, which results in the the report being incomplete itself. As a result, irrespective of the seriousness of the matter, such reports do not get the desired or deserved placement in the media. The adapted version of the ILO media toolkit provides a roadmap for not only making our reporting objective but also in protecting sources and keeping journalists safe too.

With the growth of Nepali media and the increasing significance of labour migration as a reporting area, several media houses have now appointed staff reporters or representatives in Nepal’s major destination countries. These journalists are regularly reporting from Qatar, Malaysia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, South Korea among others. They are the first ones to cover any incidents of Nepali migrant workers being exploited at their workplace or in the country of destination.


Hom Karki and his book.

50FF: In 2021, you published a book with stories of Nepali migrant workers. What are the main issues that the book covers ?

HK: My book is centred on Nepali migrants working in the Gulf countries, from the first generation of Nepalis migrant workers to the new ones. This book collects details of exploitation and unfair recruitment practices, including how workers’ contracts are changed; how workers are coerced to pay recruitment fees; how they are forced to work in unsafe working environments; how they get trapped in an endless circle of courts proceedings hoping to receive facilities and perks as per labour laws; their day-to-day life; how they are deprived of their fundamental rights because of the inability and/or lack of means of both origin and destination countries to update their labour laws and enforce them.


50FF: You talked about impact journalism. What kind of impact would you like to have with your work?

HK: Workers’ rights and safety are often discussed in international platforms and indoor conferences but are nowhere to be seen in the outside world. I even questioned the reporting done by journalists, including myself, for not being able to showcase the real picture and that’s why I wanted to do some impact journalism about the kind of hardships, pain and struggles faced by those workers. At times, I feel we all are rejoicing in very shallow reporting. We have not been able to showcase the value of their labour significantly. For me, the real issues go beyond whether they can keep their passport or change their sponsors. They should be paid fairly for the work they do. They deserve quality living and working conditions. Their workplaces should be free from any forms of discrimination. And, they should be free from forced labour. These are some of the issues that concern me the most.


Interview conducted by Charles Autheman.