It’s a dilemma that anyone who travels in the developing world encounters, “When you pay someone for goods or services are you exploiting them or helping them?”
Getting ready for the summit. Image: Flickr/ ilkerender
In the specific case of the Sherpas, concerns about their welfare have been hanging around for a long time. In 2006, The Independent’s Justin Huggler in Everest: No Room at the Top reported a widespread belief that ‘the Sherpas who climb Everest with Western expeditions get a raw deal, and are often exploited.’
It says something about the attitude of foreign climbers that many wrongly assume that all who help out on expeditions are Sherpas, when in fact this is just one ethnic group amongst many employed in the Himalayas.
But is exploitation of these elite mountaineers a reality? If so, how widespread is it? And what are you doing about it?
Worse at the Bottom
As with every society on Earth, there is a privileged minority who do much better than the downtrodden majority below them. At and around Everest, those who work at higher altitudes as guides are entitled to free food and kit and can earn around £1800 for four month’s work – not bad for Tibet.
But some, like climbing blogger Bob Bennell, assert that Sherpas should be paid better given that no Westerner can match their orienteering and tracking skills. He goes on to say, ‘Sherpas get only token credit for any team success even though little could be achieved without their help’.
It’s not so rosy for those who serve food and lug equipment at the lower altitudes. Their equipment and clothing is often inadequate for these harsh climes (and climbs) and they are lucky to receive £1.50 per day. Even by Tibetan standards, this is not a great rate for such difficult and challenging work.
Make sure you tip your Tamang assistant. Image: Flickr/ ilkerender
Unfortunately, there is a racial aspect to this split within the ranks of porters who may help you trek everest base camp. For historical reasons, Sherpas dominate the better-paid, higher altitude jobs while other ethnic groups such as Tamangs tend to occupy the less glamorous positions lower down.
There is little room for upward mobility, but this is sadly just a reflection of broader Tibetan society.
While the division between Sherpa and Tamang is undoubtedly a product of indigenous culture, Westerners must share some of the blame for propagating it with the money they pay out for trek holidays.
So what can you do? One approach is to make sure you tip your Tamang assistant so that he can supplement the measly wage he takes home. You’ll have to be cautious: offering too much money might embarrass him, and too little might offend him.
It’s best to ask around and find out what a fair ‘going rate’ is.
Perhaps the most effective – but also most idealistic – approach would be to help the Tamangs to form a union of some kind, or to establish a campaign to give Tamangs a leg up into the better-paid jobs.
Have you had the help of Sherpas while trekking in Nepal? What do you think the solution might be?