Kathmandu, Nepal: The plight of construction workers during the global pandemic

In Kathmandu, Nepal, construction workers are particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fall-out. An individual construction manager is supporting his fellow workers with food and accommodation to make up for insufficient government support. Krishna Bahadur Khadka and Rubina Adhikari report.

This is the twenty-sixth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Nepal’s construction industry is significant in economic terms. Every year, a large number of migrant workers come in search of employment in the capital city of Kathmandu and end up finding a job in the construction sector.

With the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown on 22 March, the construction sites in Kathmandu and other urban centres of Nepal came to a sudden halt. This left approximately 4.4 million daily wage earners and their employers with hardly any time to plan their next move.

Government aid falls far short of true needs

Pramila Shrestha is a construction worker who works in a site located in Shankhamul. When the lockdown was declared in March, she had no clue about the virus. Being a daily wage earner, she used to regularly go to work. But soon after, her life changed as she was told to stop working, and her payment was halted. Her husband had a street food stall, which also got shut down.

“I had to look after my in-laws, my son, and myself. With no food and money left, everything seemed precarious” she laments.

Pramila and her husband were not the only ones to suffer. Krishna Sharma, another construction worker living in Lagankhel, faced the same consequences. He couldn’t go back to his home, and like other daily wage workers, he also lost his job temporarily.

The nationwide lockdown was imposed when there were only two confirmed cases in the country. The sudden announcement of the lockdown and poor management by the government displaced many citizens from their homes and jobs. The provision of food aid and cash for the people in need was not enough as it couldn’t reach the targeted communities.

Both Pramila and Krishna survived the initial days of the lockdown with their little savings or else borrowed from friends. Though Pramila took the food aid provided by the government, Krishna refused it.

“The food aid provided by the government had two meals. I have seen my neighbours getting stale rice and rotten vegetables. Seeing the quality and the hygiene status, I refused it,” Krishna shares.

Support from individuals saves the day

The government alone is not taking actions to ease the situation. There are many organisations, private companies, families, and individuals who are lending a hand  to provide food and clothes to people in need, especially to the daily wage earners.

One of them is Om Bhujel, a construction manager who lives in Kathmandu but originally from Sindhuli, another district of Nepal. Om was privileged enough to survive through the lockdown without any suffering. Such blessings compelled him to help fellow workers during this tough time.

“We all need to look after each other in such times; we cannot rely only on the government,” Om shares.

He accommodated workers in his home, who were working for him before the lockdown started, and provided them with food and basic amenities. The workers were not allowed to go outside of the house’s property boundaries; and since the workers were with him from the beginning of the global pandemic, contamination risk and safety from the virus did not seem to be a big problem.

Despite living in the same house, Om Bhujel strictly maintained the hygiene protocols by asking the workers to sanitise their hands and wear masks.

Ramesh Chaudhary is one of the workers who were accommodated by Om Bhujel. He works as a mason and is fortunate enough to work under Om who offered full payment and accommodation during the pandemic.

“My life is not the same as before as my friends and neighbours have all gone to their respective villages and I do not know how they are surviving. However, I feel happy to survive this pandemic, get food and firmly hope to return to normality,” Ramesh shares.

When the lockdown was eased, all three workers resumed work in their respective construction sites and fortunately there was no pay cut for any of them. But thousands of people working in the informal sector have lost their jobs, suffered pay cuts, or have been forced to stay on leave.

“Life has never been the same for many people since the lockdown. Bill payments due, no place to dwell, and the burden of many responsibilities worsened their situation. Now, the government has eased the lockdown. However,  there are few precautions in the workplace, so the risk of getting the virus still lingers,” Om concludes.


Interviewers’ perspective

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt the most by daily wage earners. They are struggling to eat even one meal per day, and there is more chance of dying from hunger than from the virus. During such crises, when the poor need help and support from the government, the government has once again sold  its citizens short, in the name of aid, and this is not the first time that Nepalese are experiencing it. The first step that the government should take is to acknowledge and address the challenges and start making decisions that ensure human rights and social justice. The government should provide food and accommodation with utmost hygiene and health standards. Workers’ vulnerabilities, demands, and basic needs for long term resilience should be addressed.

About the interviewers

Krishna Bahadur Khadka is the Chairperson of the Youth For Environment Education And Development Foundation (YFEED) Foundation. He is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and is also a youth activist involved in organising young people for social change.

Rubina Adhikari is an undergraduate student in the third year of her BSc. Forestry degree. She is also currently involved in the YFEED Foundation as a Programme Associate. She is vocal in advocating, through the Foundation, for effective action on climate change and disaster risk reduction.

About the interviewees

Pramila Shrestha is a 22-year-old woman who belongs to an indigenous community of Newar people and lives in Kathmandu, Nepal. She has been working as a construction worker for around five years and lives with her in laws.

Krishna Sharma is a 34-year-old construction worker residing alone in Kathmandu. He is currently working in the construction site of a stadium in the city.

Om Bhujel, aged 40,  is a native indigenous man  from the Bhujel community, in  Sindhuli district. He is currently living in Kathmandu and works as a construction manager.

Ramesh Chaudhary is a mason working under Om Bhujel at his construction site.