The first time I heard the words khalli balli was in a small park in Sharjah in 2010. I was sitting with a group of Nepali migrants who had gathered in the sticky night air to temporarily escape their claustrophobic, vile lodgings. They had been promised jobs in Afghanistan but instead had been abandoned in the emirate.
Khalli balli is an Arabic word, which basically means, “Who cares?” But the Nepali workers told me it was often used to describe them, especially those who had lost their legal status. It was a derogatory term, often accompanied by a dismissive flick of the wrist. Roughly speaking, it meant those who are worthless, who don’t merit any attention.
Six years later I heard the term again, this time while driving through Qatar with an Indian health and safety manager of a construction company. “The Qataris’ willingness to do something good [for migrant workers] is zero . . .,” he told me. “Their attitude is khalli balli, which means, ‘I couldn’t care less.’”
In the intervening years, I have spent many hours interviewing Nepali migrant workers in Qatar, Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, and, of course, Nepal, and the single common strand that ties together all their experiences is that they were treated with utter indifference.
The manpower agents that rip them off, the construction companies that do not pay them, the governments at both ends who see them as little more than disposable people, there only to boost their grand plans and GDPs—they all have the same attitude: they couldn’t care less.
This is most stark in the statistics of the number of migrants dying overseas. When I first reported that at least 44 Nepali migrants had died in Qatar in just two months during the summer of 2013, it provoked an international outcry.
But nothing has been done. In 2014, the Qatar government’s own lawyers recommended they commission independent research into the causes of the deaths, but to the best of my knowledge, they have still not done so.
If you visit the Foreign Employment Promotion Board in Kathmandu, you can sit with their statistician as he scrolls through page after page of a spreadsheet listing the names of the dead; an endless roll call of loss.
For the families left behind without their husband, son, sister, and often breadwinner, this loss is devastating. In Dhanusha, I met the parents of Umesh Paswan, the 19-year-old who died a few weeks after he had left for the Gulf. They had just cremated his body and were crippled by grief. They did not understand how he had died, but they had borrowed 150,000 rupees to send him abroad, and now faced a further bill for the same amount just to cover the cost of his funeral.
Less well documented are the number of workers injured abroad, men like Padam Shrestha. When I met him in Dharan in 2015, Padam lived in a tiny room with pictures of himself as a youthful body-builder hanging from the walls. But Padam’s once smooth, muscular body and face were covered in wrinkled scars. While working as a security guard at a petrol station in Doha, Padam suffered burns to over 75 percent of his body in a massive explosion. He had not received any compensation, and now his wife was planning to find work abroad to earn money in his place.
While worker deaths may make headlines, the real worry for most migrant workers is money. The decision to go abroad is based on a series of very delicate financial calculations: the size of the loan they must take out, the rate of interest on the loan, the recruitment fee the manpower agent will charge, the cost of traveling and staying in Kathmandu pre-departure, the cost of making a passport, the monthly wage overseas, the opportunity for overtime pay, the cost of living overseas, the leave bonus. It is a long list.
If all these calculations pan out as predicted, a migrant can earn a reasonable salary abroad. But what if the manpower adds on some last minute fees? Or the migrant has to spend months in Kathmandu waiting for a visa? Or the salary is not as high as promised, or is not paid for months? Or overtime is not offered? Or the employer refuses to pay for the flight home? If any one of these occur, the migrant quickly winds up in deep financial trouble.
And yet these types of abuses are commonplace, even though most of them are in breach of local labor laws. Indeed, in all my visits to the Gulf, late, low, or non-payment of wages is the number one complaint from migrant workers. In any fair economy, the solution would be simple—leave and find another job. But of course the kafala employment system, which leaves workers indebted to the employers who sponsor their visas, does not allow for that, and so the abuse goes on. Think of it from the perspective of the employer: if you know your workers cannot leave, what incentive is there to look after them?
And so when things go wrong, workers find themselves trapped, as one laborer in Qatar recently explained, “They neither pay us or let us leave.” And yet I have never met a migrant who is unwilling to work. They all know what is at stake. They almost all have huge debts hanging over them and are desperate to pay them off. In fact, while some activists complain about the hours of overtime workers have to do, the workers never do. They want overtime because it is their only means to pay off debts and earn a living, however perverted that logic is.
The blame for this does not just lie with actors in Nepal and the Gulf, even major multinationals are complicit. Earlier this year I revealed that Nepali migrant laborers working for companies co-owned by two of Britain’s largest construction firms, were victims of gross labor abuse, including erratic payment of wages, dire living conditions, and passport confiscation. What particularly surprised me was the blanket denials on the part of the giant British firms. One, Balfour Beatty, said the local company it co-owns, BK Gulf (for whom the laborers in question were working), “provides conditions for its workforce which go over and above local regulations and laws.” It said BK Gulf actively monitors the labor supply companies it uses. And yet, almost four months after I first revealed the mistreatment of its workers, those same workers had not been paid for over three months by the labor supply company that directly employed them and had seen no improvements to their living conditions.
When I visit the Gulf to investigate the treatment of migrant laborers, I am usually working under very difficult conditions. In particular getting access to workers is time-consuming and somewhat risky (a significant number of journalists and researchers have been detained in Qatar). And yet if I can find so many cases of abuse, it should be easy for any construction company or government official, who have unhindered access to workers, to do the same. So why don’t they?
The answer is complex, but the key to it lies in that phrase, khalli balli; “I couldn’t care less.” As long as manpower agents, supply companies, sub-contractors, and governments view migrant workers as disposable people, the exploitation will continue.
Cover photo: Lila Acharya left Nepal for a job in Lebanon in 2010. Two months later her body was flown home to Kathmandu’s airport in a coffin, where her distraught relatives came to collect it. Pete Pattisson