Inside the ugly world of Nepali restaurants in Finland

|     Paavo Teittinen     |

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) – After months of working without a break, Suman finally got his first day off. That meant he only had to work for seven hours, as opposed to the average 13 hours he was pulling daily.

Suman’s shift would begin in the morning, around nine, and end after the restaurant closed at 10 at night. Sometimes, the workload would go up to almost 80 hours a week, with Suman working 16-hour days on the weekends and holidays.

But for all his work, Suman didn’t get any actual compensation. Every now and then, small sums of money were transferred to his account. The contract wage was paid to his Nordea account, but the account was controlled by the owner. Suman said he didn’t see a penny of the payments.

Suman and two other men worked as cooks in the popular Nepali restaurant, Mount Sherpa, in the centre of the Finnish town of Kuopio.

For a year and a half, Suman tolerated the exploitation. Then, when he’d had enough, he walked to the police station in Kuopio.

That was two and a half years ago. Last December, the Pohjois-Savo District Court sentenced the owner of Mount Sherpa, Purna Adhikari – for three counts of aggravated tax fraud, two counts of accounting offences and three counts of human trafficking – to conditional imprisonment of a year and eight months.

Nepali restaurants in Finland, like this one in Kamppi neighbourhood of Helsinki, are owned by a small group of businessmen. – THE KATHMANDU POST/ANN

According to the court, the restaurant’s working conditions had gravely violated Finnish law and the owner had taken advantage of the workers’ vulnerable positions.

The conviction was rare, but such exploitation is much more common in Finland.

An investigation by Helsingin Sanomat has revealed that many Nepali restaurants, favoured by Finns, routinely have cooks working shifts that can extend up to 16 hours. Workers coming to Finland have to pay for their jobs, and compensation for their work is often minimal. Over the span of five months, the Helsingin Sanomat interviewed 19 Nepalis and one Indian, 15 of whom work or have worked in Nepali restaurants. They recounted experiences from over 10 restaurants, over many years, from different parts of Finland.

The Nepalis spoke on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of losing their jobs and consequently, their residence permits. Some are worried about their own as well as their family’s safety.

Three of the workers are in the assistance system for victims of human trafficking, a Finnish government body that helps people who have been exploited.

The stories that the Nepalis tell are alike in many respects.

Similar events and practices show up time and again: cooks are made to work an enormous, or at the very least illegal, amount of hours, and the payment is nowhere near that stipulated by official work regulations.

One cook told the Helsingin Sanomat that he had worked every day for 14 hours, with no days off, since arriving in Finland around five years ago. The job paid no extras or overtime, and after taxes, he earned less than EUR1,000 (about Rs125,000) a month. About half of that sum went to the restaurant owner to pay off the cook’s debt.

“When I complained about the conditions, the owners threatened to send me back to Nepal,” said the cook.

Another cook said that for a year, he worked for 13 hours a day and was paid a few hundred euros a month. He lived in an apartment owned by the restaurant owner and his income was so small that he saved money by washing his hair with dishwashing liquid.

Almost all the workers who spoke to the Sanomat said that they had to pay the restaurant owners to be able to come to Finland. The sums they paid range from around EUR5,000 to over EUR15,000.

One Nepali cook said that he had to sell his assets in Nepal in order to be able to come to Finland. Many told of borrowing money in their home country from relatives. Some could not afford to pay, so they agreed to work in Finland for free.

Their working conditions are dire. Workers often sleep in crowded apartments with other cooks. One Nepali man interviewed by the Sanomat shared a two-bedroom apartment with six other cooks.

Several workers from different cities told the Sanomat that the owner confiscated their passports. Many say that they are forced to work even if they become sick or have injured themselves. The Helsingin Sanomat corroborated the workers’ stories by examining police investigation material, court documents, bank statements, private messages, official documents and other items.

The Sanomat also interviewed officials from the police department, the Regional State Administrative Agency, the assistance system for victims of human trafficking and Victim Support Finland, an NGO focused on helping victims of crime, among others.

The Nepali workers themselves wanted to speak of the abuse, and reached out to the Sanomat in the hope that government officials would tackle the problem. One Nepali interviewed for this article said they wondered how the exploitation has gone on for so long. Another, who has worked for years in the kitchen of a Nepali restaurant, said that many cooks are still in a very difficult situation.

“We hope that the Finnish government will intervene. This is systematic criminal activity,” said the worker.

The density of Nepali restaurants in Finland is higher than in any other Western country. In metropolitan areas alone, there are around 50 Nepali restaurants. The lion’s share of the large, well-known restaurants is owned by a group of roughly 30 Nepali businessmen, the majority of whom are from the same place in Nepal – Gulmi. They are closely related and have financial ties.

The first Nepali restaurant in Finland was founded in 1993 in Kallio, a neighbourhood of the capital Helsinki. It was called Himalaya and the founder was a man named Devi Sharma.