Hundreds of Nepalis work within the expedition tourism industry in Nepal. On expeditions, the large majority of these high altitude workers who labor above base camp are carrying loads, and are ethnic Sherpa. There is a slowly increasing number of other ethnicities working above base camp carrying loads. Technically these are called high altitude workers or high altitude porters because they are carrying on the mountain above base camp where there is technical terrain. People use the term ‘sherpa’ to denote this job but it is an incorrect and inappropriate use of the word, as Sherpa refers to an ethnicity not a job. We prefer high altitude worker, the term that is used by the Government of Nepal. High altitude workers are the backbone of the vast majority of expeditions in the Himalaya today.
Some of these high altitude workers are employed as guides rather than working strictly as load carriers. This entails not only carrying loads but also accompanying and guiding a client while climbing during an expedition. The vast majority do not act as guides on the mountain.
An expedition also employs a great number of porters who carry loads along the trekking routes (trails) to base camp. The large majority of these workers are not ethnic Sherpas, though ethnic Sherpas also are employed as porters in smaller numbers. Expeditions also employ cooks, base camp helpers, and a variety of support workers who build and maintain the base camp.
In 2013 there were 2,273 foreigners who participated on expeditions in the Nepal Himalaya. This created 2,875 direct jobs supporting these expeditions. This doesn't include a slightly smaller number of hires for expeditions that originated their expeditions in Nepal, and continued on to Tibetan mountains such as Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, and the north side of Mt. Everest. In addition to these direct jobs there are more jobs created by the great influx of money directed to the teahouses for accommodation, food, and other provisions as well as transportation and transport needs via porters, vehicles, planes and helicopters.
The compensation structure is a bit complicated. It is based on a standard day rate, number of loads carried, an allowance for gear, bonuses and tips. Typically the high altitude guides and load carriers will make more than the cooks and base camp staff, and those jobs in turn make more than the porters carrying loads to base camp.
Both commercial climbing teams and non-commercial teams (going privately or a personal trip “on your own”) use a Trekking Agent to help facilitate the adventure. Trekking Agents in Nepal are often referred to as “Nepali outfitters” in casual terminology. If your trip is booked through a guide company or foreign outfitter based in US, Europe, NZ, UK, etc., that company will also use a Trekking Agent for some or all of their logistics.
The government requires, as part of the permit process for all expeditions that insurance is provided for all hired local staff. This is purchased via a private insurance company in Nepal, of which there are several. The Trekking Agent facilitates this.
The insurance requirements are different for each of the tiers of workers. The highest mandatory coverage is for high altitude workers (HAW). This insurance is fairly minimal. As of autumn 2014, a HAW worker on an Expedition (as defined by the Ministry of Tourism, primarily peaks 7000 meters and above) is covered for a 1.5 million Nepali Rupee policy. If they are killed the person listed as their beneficiary receives this benefit, which is approximately $15,000.00 USD.
This is inadequate. Often these workers are the main source of income for not only their immediate family but also for elderly parents or siblings who are unable to support themselves or the family of the deceased. At present this insurance is the only formal safety net in place. Families rely on support from foreigners they have met in the past, and the support of the foreign outfitter if the worker was employed by a reputable organization that has the ability to harness support. Often the Nepali outfitters have no resources whatsoever to help their workers who may be killed.
A general figure for a widow and a child to live in Kathmandu together and pay cost of living expenses would be $2500-$3500 a year. Once that child is in school there would be approximately another $1000-$1500 a year. Cost of living plus education of school age children (high school or younger) for a widow and two kids can be $5500-$6000. If a child goes to college in Kathmandu you can add another $1000+ a year per child. Often the worker has also supported other family members.
The mandatory insurance benefit does not get the family very far.
A more adequate insurance policy would still not replace the earnings of a deceased worker. The family would be at a disadvantage economically, which is to be expected.
A better safety net can and should be established for the industry. With your support we will continue to advocate for this and to research and examine options to move towards a sustainable solution in the industry that protects local workers.