Discover How Poverty Drives Many to Risky but Alluring Foreign Job Markets

How human trafficking happens is a complex discussion because there are so many types of human trafficking. One type – foreign workers who have no legal paperwork to protect them – is one of the most common in Nepal. It’s also one of the most costly in terms of human life.

Every year hundreds of illegally trafficked Nepali citizens come home from foreign countries in body bags. Countless more are never heard from again. Some get trapped in sex trafficking. But many are simply exploited for labor in regular jobs with no protections from workplace abuses.

So how does this kind of human trafficking happen? And why would someone choose to go work in a foreign country with no paperwork, having seen their own friends and relatives pay for the same thing with their lives?

There’s one driving force that leads many Nepalis to go despite the warning signs they’ve heard from friends and family about working abroad. That driving force is:


The financial upside of working in other countries is simply too great to ignore for many adult men and women in Nepal.

Yes, there are risks. But there is risk in not going too. With so much of Nepal mired in subsistence living with few job opportunities anywhere on the horizon, foreign job opportunities aren’t just one option among many. They are often perceived as the only option.

And so every year, thousands walk right past the known and very real danger signs.

This article is about the foreign work enslavement of adult and young adult workers, specifically in Nepal. How child trafficking happens in Nepal is somewhat different from this, and needs its own article.

Note: Some data and descriptions for this article have come from this article at the Washington Post.

Nepal’s Economy – Sluggish with Limited Opportunities

Nepal opened up its borders to allow its people to visit other nations as recently as 1990. But then a 10 year war over communism and Maoism destroyed much of the nation’s economy, and cost the lives of many.

Today, many families are missing fathers and grandfathers who died in this war. Many children grow up not knowing one or both of their parents. It’s harder to escape poverty because of the war.

So there’s a whole generation of people coming into adulthood – prime working years – who have few if any work opportunities. Commerce in Nepal is dominated by tiny roadside shops run by families or individuals. Street vendors, drivers, and farm labor dominates much of the working population.

In rural areas, it’s mostly about survival. If you don’t own land, you’re in big trouble. If you do own land, you’ll have to work very hard to live off it, but it’s possible. If you ever visit Nepal, you’ll be quite impressed with how hard-working many of the people are.

human trafficking happens in Nepal in part because of a shortage of job opportunitiesBut that’s it. If you grow up in Nepal, these are your most likely job prospects:

  • Farm
  • Live off the land
  • Peddle goods on the street (in tourist areas of the bigger cities)
  • Become a driver
  • Try to open up your own shop and compete against the dozens of others nearby selling the exact same goods

Yes, there are other jobs. Construction is a growing industry in Nepal, there’s a strong tourism market, and a few other industries are slowly cropping up. And option #5, opening up your own shop, can be a great path to financial independence. In fact, our job training program empowers women to do exactly this.

But for the majority, opportunity is bleak. And these are the breeding grounds for human trafficking and exploitation.

How Human Trafficking Happens – The Process in Nepal

If a working-age man or woman decides that working abroad is their only remaining option to earn income and support their family, what do they do? (Family in Nepal isn’t just kids. It’s siblings, parents, and often extended family too).

They face two choices:

  • Go to the government’s Department of Foreign Employment and risk waiting, paying high fees, or getting turned away
  • Go to a ‘manpower company’ that promises a fast track, low-fee, low-paperwork path to immediate work

To leave the country, you need a work visa and a passport, among other paperwork. Then, a manpower company (there are legitimate ones too) sets you up with a job, usually in a Persian Gulf country like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Those countries have been booming in the last 30 years, doing lots of construction in particular. They also have strong service economies.

For many Nepalis, the prospect of making several hundred dollars a month is tough to ignore when compared with the choices they face at home.

But because the government restricts how many people can leave and requires lots of paperwork and fees, it’s tempting to look for illegal ways of getting around those restrictions. Women in particular are tempted to look for back-channel pathways because there are even more restrictions on them.

But this is not a case of gender discrimination. These restrictions are there because the Nepali government knows that so many Nepali women get abused and trafficked and exploited in other countries.

Manpower Companies – Legal and Illegal

When a woman (or anyone) goes through the government channels, they create a paperwork trail. They can get life insurance protection if they do suffer an accident. They can be tracked. Their passports are protected.

But when someone goes through an illegal manpower company that seeks profit from worker abuse, their passports often get taken and held by their foreign employer. No one knows where they are. If they get threatened to work 16 hour days without a day off for weeks at a time, they have no recourse, because the Nepali embassy doesn’t know they’re even in the country (and has scant resources to investigate).

When their pay is withheld so the traffickers who sent them there can be paid off, they can’t do anything to fight back.

They become slaves, and without a passport they have no way to leave. This is how human trafficking happens for many desperate workers from Nepal. Over 26% of Nepal’s gross domestic product comes from workers sending back money from overseas jobs. Over 10% of Nepal’s population works in other nations. So it’s true that many people have found legitimate work, and are helping their families back home.

But many others have vanished. Others have died. Some get channeled into sex trafficking if they’re the right age. Others just get worked to the bone or physically abused and have no way out. It’s human slavery. It’s happening right now.

How Can We Stop Human Trafficking in Nepal?

rural areas of nepal like this one are especially vulnerable to foreign job human traffickingSo what’s the solution? You’ve seen what causes human trafficking for workers in Nepal. But what can you do to prevent it from happening?

You can see from this article that there are complex systems in play across multiple continents. So it can seem like a problem too big to solve.

However, there is great power in simply knowing the truth.

If there are both legal and illegal manpower companies in Nepal, surely there must be a way to spot the illegal ones and avoid falling for their promises of guaranteed work with no hassles or fees.

Women’s Protection Center in Nepal has rescued women who have been trafficked by these corrupt systems of abuse. We’ve seen the brokenness. The wrecked family relationships. The trauma. And as we rescued more women, we discovered effective ways to fight these human trafficking networks.

Read how we stopped a major trafficking network in part 2 of this series.