ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Hundreds of thousands of Nepalese construction worker have been unable to go home, unable to check on their families and homes after last month's massive earthquake. That's according to the International Trade Union Confederation or ITUC. These are migrants working in Gulf states, and their jobs are controlled by a contract system that requires them to remain in the country where they're employed for two years. Under the system of sponsorship called kefala, you can't enter the country or leave it without permission from your sponsor. Last week, the ITUC announced it had written to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to ask them to suspend that system. And joining us from Brussels, where the ITUC is headquartered, is Tim Noonan, the organization's director of campaigns and communications for the ITUC. Welcome to the program.
TIM NOONAN: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Have you received a response from any of the countries I just mentioned that the kefala system might be waived to allow Nepalis to go back home?
NOONAN: No. It's been several days now since we took contact with the authorities in those three countries to ask them to suspend the kefala restrictions. Unfortunately, we haven't heard a response, and the information that we're getting on the ground is that there is a serious and growing problem.
SIEGEL: A problem of Nepali workers wanting to go home and not being allowed to by their sponsors, contractors say.
NOONAN: That's correct. The law requires migrant workers to have permission from their employer to leave the country. No change or suspension to that kefala law has been made. We do understand that some larger companies have been allowing, even helping, Nepalese workers to go home, but it's really only a trickle. We know that many more haven't been able to get that permission from their employer, and the governments are leaving those rules in place.
SIEGEL: How many Nepali workers are in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
NOONAN: The figures are approximations because the authorities in those countries don't keep, or certainly don't release, reliable figures. The best information that we have is that in Saudi Arabia it's around half-a-million. In Qatar it's in excess of 300,000. And in the Emirates, some 200,000.
SIEGEL: These workers would have complicated concerns at this moment. Obviously, it would be natural to want to go home and see that your family is well - that your home is standing. On the other hand, the remittances that these workers are sending back home for working in the Gulf is a major source of revenue for Nepal. Do you hear any concerns that if we were to leave, we wouldn't be allowed to come back?
NOONAN: Well, there's always that risk. The immediate urgency for many thousands of migrants is to be with their families. We have heard reports from the Gulf that the psychological impact of this on many workers is extreme, on top of an already very egregious situation. The humanitarian question is, are they going to be allowed to go home, and are they going to be allowed to come back?
SIEGEL: Is there any precedent for the kefala system ever being suspended because of any particular emergency?
NOONAN: To our knowledge, in relation to these three countries, no. There have, however, been in other countries. For example, in Bahrain, where there are still a large number of labor-related problems, the government did reform the kefala system and do away with the exit permit system. So Gulf countries can do this. It's just a matter of whether they want to live according to modern rules or whether they want to remain in a feudal employment situation, which is the case in these three countries at the moment.
SIEGEL: Mr. Noonan, thanks for talking with us.
NOONAN: Thank you very much, Robert.
SIEGEL: Tim Noonan is director of campaigns and communications for the International Trade Union Confederation. We contacted representatives of the Qatar, Saudi and UAE governments for a response, and we have not heard back from any of them as of airtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.