The recent allegations of rape involving Nepali women at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Gurgaon near Delhi are shocking ‒ but they are also familiar for anybody who tracked Nepali migrant labour over the years. Filmmaker Kesang Tseten is among them. The filmmaker has made a series of documentaries on Nepalis who leave behind their villages and fields to move to the Gulf and work as maids, construction labour, and restaurant staff. Through such documentaries as In Search of the Riyal, Saving Dolma and The Desert Eats Us, Tseten provides rare and piercing views of the forces that push Nepalis to faraway lands, the conditions in which they work, and the feelings of the families they have left behind.

One of the employers in the film In Search of the Riyal peddles a common stereotype that “Nepalis are quiet people.” Tseten thoroughly debunks through this notion through his empowering interviews with migrants, who freely discuss their aspirations, fears, and anxieties and provide a bottom-up perspective of the labour market in the Gulf.

In Search of the Riyal from ShunyataFilms on Vimeo.

In Search of the Riyal (2009), the first in the loose trilogy, is divided into three chapters: going there, being and returning. Sparrow-chested young men lift sacks of cement to prove their strength at a recruitment centre and receive lessons in social etiquette from their handlers. These migrants from rural Nepal who not even been to Kathmandu, let alone beyond the borders, toil in sun-bitten countries in the Gulf in low-skilled jobs, including waiting tables and caring for camels.

The Desert Eats Us from kesang lama on Vimeo.

The Desert Eats Us (2010) is set entirely in Qatar, where Tseten maps the often miserable conditions in which Nepali migrants toil away for precious wages that support their families back home.

Saving Dolma from ShunyataFilms on Vimeo.

Saving Dolma (2010) tracks the case of a Nepali woman who was sentenced to death on the charge of murdering her Filipino co-worker.

The sheer numbers of Nepalis who flee their country every year in search of better opportunities encouraged Tseten to make the trilogy. One in three Nepalese families depends on earnings of migrant workers, he pointed out, and the films were made “because of its [migration’s] significance in every sense, its economy, where remittances amount to something like 27% of the GDP, where migration has by now become a passage of rite for many young men in the rural areas, in spite of the obstacles and risks, because the outflow of such significant populations (1,600 or so workers leave Nepal every day) affects the makeup of society, population growth and birth spacing, forestry, agriculture and so on”, he said.

As a result, Nepal remains heavily dependent on foreign remittances, added Tseten, who has also directed a lovely documentary on a reunion at his boarding school in India, titled We Homes Chaps, and a film on recruitment for the Gurkha regiment called Who Wants To Be A Gurkha.

“One out of three households are sustained by remittances, and typically, if a worker borrows money at 24 to 60 percent to pay the manpower and recruiting agencies fee, he shoulders immense pressure to cope with difficult working conditions, the heat, long hours, loneliness so that he can repay the loan,” Tseten pointed out. “To fail is to exacerbate already dire economic conditions.”

The reported rape of Nepali domestic workers in Delhi invokes “outright shock and horror”, and not only because of the nationality of the victims, he said. Saudi Embassy First Secretary Majed Hassan Ashoor fled the country after the allegations surfaced, denying the charges and claiming diplomatic immunity.

“Unfortunately, in spite of abuses such as these, huge numbers of women go out for work, to better their poor conditions back home, where too it isn’t all pastoral, in the belief they can improve their lot and that they have a right to do so,” Tseten said. “The fundamental problem, not specifically in terms of the Delhi case, is that women are fundamentally more vulnerable than men, because they work in private spaces as compared to socialised work situations of men, in the Gulf States and Malaysia, where it is a matter of chance what they encounter.”