Former employees of German Watchmaker Kobold say they were harassed, not paid for their work

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Sumitra Danuwar, Anita Chapagain and Sushmita Rai first arrived at the Kobold Watch Company’s office in Kathmandu in July 2017.

After growing up in a Maiti Nepal hostel, the three girls, all of whom are still in their teens, had just completed their tenth-grade exams and were looking for part-time work. The Pennsylvania-based watch company, run by German national Michael Kobold, had been running a shop out of Babarmahal since 2012 and was looking for help.

Kobold was introduced to Anuradha Koirala, the founder of Maiti Nepal, by former US ambassador to Nepal Scott DeLisi. “Later, we met Kobold at the office of then US ambassador Alaina Teplitz to speak about sending some of our girls to work for him part-time,” said Bishwo Khadka, director of Maiti Nepal. “This was perhaps done to instill more confidence in him and convince us.”

Following the meeting, Danuwar, Chapagain and Rai were promised work with Kobold Trading, making leather accessories, including watch straps, wallets and keychains. Kobold Trading, housed in the same office as Kobold Watch, was another of Kobold’s many ventures.

The three girls were happy to work while they continued their schooling. But pretty soon, it became obvious things were not going to work out as they had been promised.

From the very beginning, the three girls, who were told they would be paid a monthly salary starting at Rs 6,000 and up to Rs 10,000, had to repeatedly pester Kobold’s staff for their pay. In an interview with the Post, the girls said that even when they received the money, Kobold would pay them half or less than half. At many times, the pay was just enough to cover their daily commute fare.

Kobold, meanwhile, was involved in a host of other projects. Alongside Kobold Watch and Kobold Trading, he was fundraising in and outside Nepal for the ‘Nepal Fire truck Expedition’, an ostensibly charitable venture to bring second-hand fire trucks from the US to Nepal, driven by a host of celebrities. A recent Post investigation showed that the fire truck expedition has been marred by a series of delays, half-truths and murky financial dealings.

Kobold also had a history of not paying dues. Along with a number of Nepali entrepreneurs who were not paid for their services, his two Sherpa employees—Thundu and Namgel—went unpaid for the three years that they worked with him from 2012 to 2015. Although Kobold has repeatedly refused to speak to the Post, on social media, he continues to claim that he spent “$100,000 in travel expenses, over $100,000 in other investment.” However, in an interview with the Post in December, Namgel Sherpa, said that they were not paid a single paisa.

On its website, Kobold Watch has advertised that one of the company’s mission is a ‘Anti Human Trafficking Campaign’, mentioning a “program to reintegrate trafficked women into society and support women at risk of being trafficked” as its first step.

The section on the website goes on to say: “Breaking with convention, all of the women are paid throughout the training period and do not have to repay the costs of training. At the successful completion of the training, we offer them a full-time position at Kobold at above-average wages.” Above the text is a photo of Danuwar at work.

However, the accounts of the three girls and the ordeal they described contradict the claim on the Kobold website. The girls were neither paid fully nor regularly, and they remain resentful of their time with Kobold. All of them believe that they would have been better off staying with Maiti Nepal and listening to their “dijju”, said Danuwar.

The website further says: “Over the years, dozens of young women have been trained and gained employment under this program.” To date, no other girls from Maiti Nepal or any other anti-trafficking organisation have worked for Kobold, according to Kobold’s own former employees.

“We initially worked with Kobold in good faith but Maiti Nepal has no relations with him anymore. What he has written on the website is fake,” said Khadka.

What’s more, according to all three girls, was Kobold’s behaviour towards them, frequently yelling at small mistakes and calling them “dirty.”

“We had no self-respect there,” said Danuwar.

After a couple of months at Kobold’s company, the girls were abruptly asked to quit their jobs by Anuradha Koirala. According to Khadka, Kobold had begun to insist that Koirala make public statements regarding his work with the girls and was falsely advertising his products as made by Maiti Nepal. Koirala did not wish to indulge in that kind of promotional work and decided she’d rather cut ties with Kobold, said Chapagain. The girls, however, did not want to quit.

Khadka confirmed to the Post that Maiti Nepal had asked the girls to quit working for Kobold after hearing their woes, but the girls refused.

“It was just the beginning and we didn’t want to leave Michael then,” said Chapagain. “We didn’t realise until much later that dijju [Anuradha Koirala] had been right all along.”

The three girls continued to work for Kobold for another year and a half, during which time, delays in payment, partial salaries and verbal castigation continued.

“Whenever we tried to quit, Michael would ask us to return the money he had paid us during our training,” Chapagain said.

After acquiring a job, the girls had been asked to leave the Maiti Nepal hostel, which is standard practice for the organisation. But they began having trouble paying their rent when Kobold continued to delay payment. Soon, the money got so tight that they started skipping school, as they didn’t have enough money for the bus ride from their apartments to their school in Sukedhara. Things went from bad to worse when their gas cylinder ran out and they weren’t able to afford another one to cook meals at home.

“The girls would eat one meal a day, often just a packet of instant noodles,” said one former employee of Kobold’s who asked not to be identified. “One time, one of the girls said that she’d only eaten a banana the entire day.”

The girls were struggling to get by, both at home and at school while continuing to spend several hours working for Kobold. Not only were they missing classes but they couldn’t even afford books. Chapagain said one of Kobold’s employees personally bought them a set of school books they could share among the three of them.

It was Sushmita Rai who began to crumble under the pressure. Rai, who often bore the brunt of Kobold’s admonishments for mistakes at work, began to get sick as she was only eating a meal a day, said Danuwar. She was sick for a couple of months and two months before Dashain, she finally quit.

The two others—Danuwar and Chapagain—also wished to quit but Kobold convinced them to stay on.

“I wasn’t surprised because he did the same thing to us,” said Hanna Geschewski, who worked for Kobold as the customer service director from May to December 2017, referring to Kobold’s non-payment of salaries. “We all tried to quit multiple times but then he’d pay us a little and keep us around.”

By October 2018, Danuwar and Chapagain had had enough. Danuwar had wanted to go home to her village to celebrate Dashain and Tihar for the first time, but she cancelled her plans because she didn’t have any money to buy gifts for her family.

“I had already told everyone that I had found a job, so it would have been shameful to go home without gifts,” said Danuwar. She spent that festival season in Kathmandu, away from her family.

The same month, Chapagain went to stay with her extended family in Butwal, with no plans of ever returning to work. While there, she began to receive repeated phone calls from Kobold, asking her why she hadn’t come in to work and why she was taking such an extended holiday. She said he harassed her so much that she blocked his number. But Kobold wasn’t done.

Though Chapagain had blocked his number, Kobold asked Roshan Ghimire, his former assistant, to call her and then seized the phone, berating her for not coming back to work for him.

“He said he would destroy my life,” Chapagain recalled during the interview, as she broke into tears.

Kobold’s threat to “destroy” and “ruin” Chapagain’s life was corroborated by a number of Kobold’s employees, including Danuwar, Ghimire and Geschewski.

“I was very scared and I cried, even though I didn’t tell my family,” said Chapagain.

Following the threat, Chapagain and Danuwar sought shelter at the Maiti Nepal hostel. Koirala asked the girls to stay at the hostel for four days for “safety reasons” because of Kobold’s threat, said the girls.

“The girls were asked to come to stay at Maiti Nepal after we heard of an alleged verbal threat,” said Khadka. Maiti Nepal even considered filing a case, but there wasn’t enough evidence, he said, and the girls did not want to proceed with a court case.

A few days later, Koirala, Khadka and the girls sat for a meeting with Kobold at the Maiti Nepal office, where he apologised to Chapagain. “I personally asked him why he had said such things,” said Khadka. “But he denied threatening her and said there was a misunderstanding.”

Kobold asked the girls to come back to work, again promising them an apartment and a raise. The girls refused.

“This time, we did not go back,” said Chapagain. “We knew he was a fraud.”

The girls never went back to work for Kobold. But the damage had been done. They had left the relative safety of the Maiti Nepal hostel and stepped into the world as independent adults. But they had neither a job nor any savings.

Eventually, they managed to find other means of employment. Danuwar currently works at a clothing warehouse while Chapagain is training to be a barista. Rai had found work as a receptionist for a massage parlour but she quit after the owner asked her to start giving massages, Chapagain said. Rai is currently unemployed.

The ordeal the girls underwent working for Kobold is par the course for him, said Geschewski. “I’ve seen him so many times threatening people and telling that he’ll make sure that they never find a job again in Nepal,” she said.

Geschewski referred to an incident at Boudha where Kobold attempted to get to the top section of the Boudhanath Stupa for a photo shoot. When security guards attempted to stop him, he “completely lost his shit and started screaming at the guards.”

“He told them: I’ll make sure both of you will never find jobs again to feed your families,” said Geschewski.  

A number of other Kobold employees, including Ghimire and his accountant Lokendra Kunwar corroborated Geschewski’s claims. Geschewski herself was never yelled at, but all of the Nepali employees were, she said. Ghimire said that he has lost track of the number of times Kobold cursed at him.

“If you look at him from afar, he’s an impressive character—coming to Nepal, establishing a watch company, bringing big names to the country,” said Geschewski. “I think it would be eye-opening for Nepalis to hear about the way he treats other Nepalis.”

Photos

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