How The Everest Avalanche Sparked A Labor Fight

CREDIT: AP/Niranjan Shrestha

Father and sons of Ang Kaji Sherpa, who was killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest

Last Friday, an avalanche on Mount Everest killed at least 13 Sherpas, members of an ethnic group that work on the mountain to secure safety equipment, carry supplies, and help climbers who are trying to reach the peak. Three others are still missing. It is the worst climbing accident on the mountain in history, but no Western climbers or guides were harmed.

In the wake of the accident, many Sherpas are making demands for better payment and working conditions while threatening a strike.

What are Sherpas’ current working conditions? Somewhere between 350 to 450 Sherpas work above Everest’s base camp during the season, which lasts two months. Despite the fact that climbers each pay a $10,000 peak fee to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and tens of thousands to commercial climbing guide companies, Sherpas usually get about $125 per climb for each legal load, although some take on more to earn more. They usually haul about $3,000 to $5,000 a season, although given that the average yearly salary in Nepal is about $700, many are drawn to the pay. But Western guides can make $50,000 to $100,000.

The work the Sherpas do is dangerous and grueling. They fix lines and ladders, set up camps ahead of the paying clients, and carry much of their loads, taking on much of the risk. As Jon Krakauer writes in the New Yorker, “The mostly foreign-owned guiding companies assign the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs to their sherpa staff, thereby mitigating the risk to their Western guides and members,” and the work they do “requires them to spend vastly more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain.” While climbing the mountain is dangerous for everyone, because Sherpas do this riskier work to make it safer, they have a very high death rate: 4,053 die for every 100,000 full-time workers. That’s many times worse than the fatality rate for miners — 25 died for every 100,000 between 2000 and 2010 — and military members in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Yet the risks have been declining for commercial climbers: between 1921 and 1996, there was one death for every four successful ascents, but that has plummeted to one death for every 88 ascents in the years since.

What are Sherpas demanding in the wake of the accident? Three days after the tragedy, a group of Sherpas proposed a first-ever work stoppage that could throw a wrench into the 334 expeditions planned for this season, although they are divided on whether to go ahead with the season. Given that they have only earned a few weeks’ wages, giving up the season could be very difficult financially.

A representative group has also presented a 13-point list of requests to the country’s Ministry of Tourism. The demands include an immediate payment of 40,000 rupees, or about $400, to the families of the victims, covering the costs of treatment for the injured, and a payment of 10 million rupees, or about $100,000, to those who won’t be able to continue working on the mountain due to their injuries. It also calls for allowing expedition teams to call off the season’s climbing and refusing to fix ropes and ladders this season, plus perks and salaries paid to the Sherpas if climbing is suspended. They have called for the creation of a relief fund through 30 percent of the royalties from issuing permits, something guides and Sherpas have called for for many years, as well as doubling their current life insurance policy payments from the current million rupees, or $10,000, to two million rupees, or $20,000. Some have called for even more: Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, has pushed for the government to pay $1,041 to each family of the deceased.

What is the Nepalese government doing so far in response? So far the government has responded to many of these requests. It has agreed to create the relief fund with some of the revenue it gets from the expeditions. It has promised to pay 40,000 rupees to each Sherpa’s family. And it has agreed to provide pensions for older Sherpas and educational assistance for their children, other requests made by the workers at meetings on Sunday and Monday. It seems the work stoppage may be called off, as Ang Tshering Sherpa said after the meetings that “climbing will be resumed.” The government will meet with Sherpas again on Tuesday to outline concrete plans to meet their demands.

But the money still falls short of what the Sherpas had asked for. The government says 5 percent of its earnings will go to the relief fund, instead of the 30 percent workers have demanded. The government earns about $3.5 million a year from the fees. The increased insurance payout will also only rise to 1.5 million rupees under the government’s plan, instead of 2 million.