A genuinely bold strategy focused on migrant worker welfare could make the overseas labour intermediation sector more professional so it can operate like any other human resource entity, providing a critical transnational job-matching function.
Recruiters are often notorious for cheating workers, but usually it is that a share of the “pie” has to be set aside for politicians, party cadres and bureaucrats up the food chain. As per the law, they deposit high escrow amounts and have to clear many bureaucratic hurdles that complicate and delay their departure of migrant workers they send, which can annoy their clients overseas, who are employers.
The practical challenges facing the recruitment industry are immense because the process is international, it is fueled by desperation and aspiration, competition from within and beyond Nepal’s borders, with tens of thousands of intermediaries, as well as negotiations with foreign employers who themselves are looking for ways to minimise costs.
What we are missing are actual interventions to make the migrant labour sector more streamlined and transparent. There is a lot of lip service about reforming recruitment practices, lofty principles are bandied about with non-binding, soft commitments and moralism that mean little in practice. Interventions are far removed from the ground reality, but they need to start where we are, not where we need to ideally be.
Good recruiters can market themselves better to attract the best employers with strong employment practices. If not, ‘manpowers’ will continue to resort to ‘buying job demands’ from employers which can include companies that do not take good care of hired workers.
Job agencies respond better to the labour and recruitment standards set by employers in ways they do not feel accountable to the government, the public or the policies in place, as what really matters to them is their bottom line.
Among all the bad apples in the recruitment industry there are also good apples trying to do things better. But not much has been done to help them even if such initiatives go counter to prevailing populist narratives that generalise. All recruiters are tarred with the same brush, and a perfunctory call for more regulatory action is made. How will more regulation help when regulators are a part of the problem? The government needs to use not just sticks, but also carrots.
There is disproportionate coverage in the Nepali media, social media and public discourse of negative migration stories. That in itself is a topic worth studying, as it affects our attitude towards emigration.
Foreign employment has allowed scores of migrant workers to overcome odds stacked against them, but perhaps not in newsworthy ways. A story of a sting operation will get much more media attention and readership than profiles of workers who went to the Gulf and came back with savings, skills and with a network of contacts.
Foreign employment has its faults but it has also changed the lives of workers like Hom, Krishna and Suresh who have been featured in the Diaspora Diaries series in Nepali Times in the past two years. Many of those who are profiled started with nothing, they charted out their own futures thanks to foreign employment.
The discourse in the Nepali public sphere victimises migrant workers even when it is not needed. Case in point: when Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf rallied to send oxygen cylinders home during the Covid pandemic, the media and the social web were full of stories about ‘poor migrant workers who skipped their meals to send oxygen to Nepal’.
Nepali workers abroad themselves were not happy with such exaggerated framing of their collective effort. It is possible to acknowledge the immense contribution migrant workers make or push for labour reforms without always portraying them as helpless sufferers.
It may be time for Nepali journalists, researchers and commentators to also step back and assess how such coverage affects the way society regards emigration, and how this impacts on migration governance.
This is even more important for the way we see female migrant workers who are primarily portrayed as being abused or exploited, referred to as powerless चेली by journalists and in social media posts. The media obsession with the negative, sensational and out of the ordinary feeds such stereotyped coverage and results in the government imposing restrictions like the partial or blanket bans on Nepali women going abroad for domestic work. Women just bypassed the ban, crossing the border into India to fly to the Gulf, increasing their risk of being trafficked, exploited or abused.
The RSP has emphasised that it will henceforth give Nepalis good reasons to stay in their own country and, for those already abroad, to return. But it should also provide migrant workers good reasons to leave. The party and the government it is a member of should not just help us imagine a society in which Nepalis are not forced to migrate, but also one in which Nepalis can better their quality of life no matter the location.
The RSP should therefore refrain from using sentences like ‘स्वदेशमा पर्याप्त मात्रामा रोजगारी सिर्जना हुन नसकुन्जेल वैदेशिक राजगारीलाई सुरक्षित र मर्यादित बनाइने छ’ (We will strive to make foreign employment safe and secure until we find ways to create enough jobs at home). This gives the impression that there is a certain date in future until which time Nepalis will still need foreign employment.
Nepal needs to create jobs at home, no doubt about it, but harnessing the immense potential of foreign labour migration in future should also be a priority. These two requisites do not have to be mutually exclusive. And we have to take these nuances into account to ensure that overseas opportunities are more inclusive, and prevent potential opportunities from being squandered.
The usual portrayal in the media is of migrant workers lining up at Kathmandu airport, and the reports urge commitment on creating jobs at home and returnee reintegration. But the press seldom analyses if overseas jobs are accessible to all Nepalis who need work.
For example, most people from far western Nepal migrate to India, very few go overseas. Why are there barriers for strivers there? Why cannot those communities also benefit from the relatively better earnings, exposure and networks beyond India?
Nepalis from remote areas without strong networks should also have equitable access to ethical recruitment to jobs in West Asia, or seasonal jobs like picking apples in the UK. Nepalis who work on farms in England save as much as Rs1.2 million in a single season.
Whether it is less known or at least, less talked about, there is also often a risk of losing good opportunities because of malpractices in the sector or because of government complacency.
After recent media exposure about exploitation of Nepali migrant workers, employers are now reportedly reluctant to hire Nepalis despite worker shortages, and continued recruitment drives from other countries on the same terms.
As we have been saying in this paper, malpractices in recruitment obviously need to be exposed, and perpetrators punished. But follow up corrective action is also needed so the consequence is not lost job opportunities. Otherwise, activism or regulatory interventions can result in migrant workers being deprived of the benefits of overseas employment.
One example of this is the lost opportunity in the Qatar Police in 2021. These were jobs with high salaries and pension benefits. Media reports exposed that workers were being charged exorbitantly for these jobs due to governance failure.
A Qatar police applicant who had completed most of the paperwork and aced the interview, but was disqualified told us: “I did not get to go. Am I better off here without that job? Surely not. I am earning a tenth of the salary I could have earned in the Qatar Police. By now I would have already paid back the loans I would have taken to pay the recruitment costs, and started saving.”
It is criminal to cheat migrant workers. But it is also criminal for migrant workers to lose potentially transformative jobs because of vested interests, especially when there are few job alternatives back home.
The RSP’s domestic employment agenda is praiseworthy and much needed in Nepal to create these alternatives. But these recent examples show that recruitment malpractices without corrective actions can also be costly for workers. Even without job creation at home, a Nepali worker is unlikely to earn up to Rs300,000 a month as they would have done with Qatar Police.