The Nepali restaurant is located in the richest country of the European Union, and its Facebook page is full of recommendations from guests lavishing effusive praise on its cuisine and service.
The page also contains a post from its owner saying that the restaurant’s chefs and staff prepare all meals with great care so that guests leave with satisfaction and good memories.
What the Facebook page does not say is that the chef and staff had been made to work more than 18 hours a day as virtual slaves with their bank accounts, and in some cases passports, in the hands of an abusive owner.
Luxembourg is Europe’s smallest country, and has the world’s highest GDP per capita. It is one of the founding members of the European Union, is one of its four capitals, and is also the seat of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Some of the restaurant’s regular customers could have been rich Europeans and those who worked on human rights. However, they were oblivious to the mistreatment and abuse of the restaurant’s Nepali staff by its Nepali owner.
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“I arrived in Luxembourg in October 2015 with a work permit sent to me by the owner of the restaurant,” says Shyam from Baglung, who paid for his own air ticket. “I wanted to live a decent life and save enough to provide for my family. But what a disappointment it has been.”
In a series of phone calls from Luxembourg, Shyam spoke of chronic beatings, abuse, withholding of salary, and substandard living conditions. Unable to bear it any longer he and some other co-workers lodged a complaint with the Luxembourg police in July.
The case will now be further investigated by the Police Judiciaire, and based on its verdict the prosecutor’s office will decide whether there is enough evidence of human trafficking to file charges.
After several attempts to contact the restaurant owner, he finally responded via an email from his lawyer denying all accusations. He says he had neither mentally nor physically abused his staff, or forced them to work for free for 16 months or work extra hours.
‘All the claims made by my ex-employees are false. They might have received a better offer from competing business and hence they fled from the restaurant housing overnight leaving a resignation letter in my mailbox,’ he states in the email. ‘This is nothing but a stunt to defame my image and damage the reputation of my very well-established business.’
Luxembourg law does not permit naming of the restaurant and the owner, unless convicted, but Shyam’s story has been corroborated by two of his colleagues as well with depositions he made with the local Nepali community and the police.
When he arrived Shyam was given space above the restaurant to share with two other co-workers. The toilets were rudimentary, and they were allowed to take a bath only once a week and that too, very grudgingly.
The restaurant’s cook, Binod, left soon after Shyam arrived because he could not tolerate the injustice of the owner, who happened to be his relative.
Nepali Times tracked down Binod in Chitwan this week, and he confirmed that the owner was physically abusive and exploited his employees from Nepal. Binod is an experienced chef, having worked for 12 years in India and seven years in Qatar before spending €3,000 of his own savings to go to Luxembourg to work for his relative, who sent him a work permit.
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He also agreed to work for 12 months without pay in lieu of his work permit. He was hired as a chef, but was asked to also do all the shopping, carrying heavy goods into the store, cleaning and other chores. He had been promised a four-hour working day, but ended up doing 18-hours a day.
Binod’s passport was taken away from him, and his phone calls were monitored. After he found the abuse intolerable, Binod asked his relative for his passport and money, but he lost his temper and beat him with anything he could lay his hands on.
His employer opened a bank account in Binod’s name and would deposit about €2,000 every month. But the restaurant owner kept all the passwords himself and Binod could not have access to his account. The owner then withdrew most of the salary he had deposited, and gave only €500 to him. At first, Binod says he did not complain because he thought that was the way things were done in Luxembourg.
Binod’s unwritten agreement with his relative was that he would work for free for one year to repay him for the work permit. But he ended up working at the restaurant for no salary, no leave and no weekends for most of the 3.5 years.
“When I did not do as asked, he hit me with a metal tandoor skewer or a ladle,” Binod recalls. “There were many nights when I could not sleep because of the pain from the beatings, and the pillow would be soaked with blood from wounds in my ears.”
Binod would plead with the employer to take him to hospital to get stitches, but was not allowed. After nearly four years of this, Binod’s father died and he asked his employer for leave. When the owner refused, Binod got relatives back home to buy a one-way ticket back to Nepal and never went back to Luxembourg.
Both Binod and Shyam thought the prospect of a job in Europe would change their lives, and trusted a fellow-Nepali employer. But while Binod returned to Nepal because he could not bear the mistreatment, and did not want to turn against his relative, Shyam lodged the complaint with the authorities.
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Binod and Shyam talked to us separately, and one did not know the other was in touch with Nepali Times. But the pattern of abuse and the method of exploitation they described unprompted were identical in both cases.
In July, three of the Nepali workers complained to the Non-resident Nepalese Association (NRN) Luxembourg, and a section of the interaction was recorded by someone there. Shyam also said he had to work 16 hours a day without holidays, not allowed breaks or to meet with other Nepalis “I was imprisoned for seven years,” he said in the audio clip.
Like Binod, Shyam’s verbal deal with the employer was that he would work without pay for the first 16 months to compensate him for arranging the work permit. But because that is not allowed under Luxembourg law, the employer would deposit €1,600 every month in his account, and he would withdraw the amount every month and hand it to the owner. He was sometimes allowed to keep €150 for himself as an allowance.
For the first six months he was treated well by his employers, and he did not complain about the bad accommodation and poor food as the other employees were in the same predicament. But after that he started facing physical violence – being hit by skewers and boxed in the ears, like Binod.
After 16 months, the owner made him sign an official contract as required by law. But even after that, he kept most of Shyam’s salary himself. In addition, the owner only gave the workers left-overs, vegetables and a thin gruel to eat.
“Sometimes we used scrap bones to make soup, and he would beat us up calling us thieves,” Shyam said on the phone. “At other times he would summon us in the middle of the night to massage his legs.”
Shyam says he tolerated the beatings and abuse because he did not want to lose face back home, and wanted to protect his mother from social stigma. He sold his land in Nepal, and brought his wife and two children over to Europe as well, and for this he needed his employer’s help. When he visited Nepal for the first time since leaving for Luxembourg, family members asked him about the scars on his face. He told them it was work related.
Finally, unable to bear the abuse any longer, Shyam and three other staff – one of them another relative of the owner – decided to tell their story to the NRN. In the audio recording of their deposition, the relative of the owner is heard saying that although he and his wife were also mistreated, he could not come out openly to lodge a complaint because of his family ties to him.
Another staff member is overheard in the clip saying he was forbidden even to drink water or take a toilet break while in the kitchen. Shyam explained that after meeting the Nepali community, the three of them got the courage to file a complaint with the Commissariat Luxembourg on 25 July 2021.
The NRN Chair in Luxembourg Hari Khatri and his family own a restaurant and grocery. He was shocked by the revelations of the four Nepali restaurant workers.
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“In my 23 years living here, this has never happened before in the Luxembourg Nepali community. We all lived together as one family,” Khatri said on the phone. “The case is now with the police, they will investigate and we will soon know the facts. I will try to help the staff as much as I can.”
There are about 450 Nepali residents in Luxembourg and some 120 households. Many of them have come as cooks to work in Nepali restaurants, and earn enough in about six months to bring their families over. Luxembourg law allows restaurant owners to import cooks if a citizen who qualifies for the job cannot be found.
That is how Khatri himself brought his brother over in 2006, who is now well settled with his family in his own house. “But I had never heard of any Nepali not paying 16 months salary to a fellow Nepali,” he added.
Like other countries in Europe, Nepalis also try to come to Luxembourg on student visas by paying agents in Kathmandu up to Rs1.6 million. He warned Nepali youngsters not to get duped, since the cost of living is very high, and it is difficult to pay living costs and school fees by working. With the pandemic, there are also fewer jobs in the service industry. Most are now working on home delivery and take away.
After the interaction with the NRN, the restaurant owner’s mother and father pleaded with Shyam and his colleagues not to press charges against their son. In an audio recording of a telephone conversation that Nepali Times was provided, they can be heard apologising to Shyam about the way their son treated him.
Shyam then asks them why they did not speak up even though they knew that their son was abusing employees. The restaurant has remained closed since the four employees left and filed the complaint.
Many Nepalis in Europe have said in interviews that they are not surprised by this story from Luxembourg. The practice of friends and relatives misusing the work permit in restaurants to engage in human trafficking is said to be rife.
But such is the desperation of young Nepalis for jobs that they are willing to risk all for a decent income to support families back home. Many of them tolerate the abuse and exploitation, and are also not aware of their rights in European countries.
Service Info Traite, which supports victims of human trafficking in Luxembourg says that the investigation and judicial process could take up to three years. It says the restaurant owner using a bank account to get around labour laws to exploit his employees is not new.
Says Frank Wies, who is a lawyer with Luxembourg’s Human Rights Commission: “The police, the courts and the prosecution often lack the necessary sensitivity to recognise and treat human trafficking. I have often seen cases where victims are given a settlement and deported back to their countries.”
That is not likely to happen with Shyam and his two colleagues who have work permits. But they have gone to the police in one of the world’s richest countries in the hope that justice will be served, and maybe set an example to other Nepali employers in Europe.
Some names have been changed. Luc Caregari of Reporter in Luxembourg collaborated in this investigation. This report is published simultaneously in English in Nepali Times, in German in reporter.lu and in Nepali by onlinekhabar.com.