An estimated 2.5 million Asians every year migrate under work contracts to other countries in the region and beyond. Labour-sending countries have tended to compete with each other rather than cooperate, thus decreasing the bargaining power of their nationals. However, the desperation of people seeking employment and the greed of recruiters have often left workers vulnerable to exploitation and deception.
In 2003, 12 Asian labour-exporting countries got together with help from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Swiss government to set up the Colombo Process to manage contractual overseas employment. As the current chairing country, Nepal is hosting a ministerial meeting in Kathmandu this week to monitor progress on the protection of migrant workers, optimising the benefits of overseas migration by coordinating responses, and enhancing the impact of remittances.
The Colombo Process is too important to be just another regional talkshop. Our economies are too reliant on remittances to be bogged down in more hazy commitments and pious platitudes.
Paying an arm and a leg, Om Astha Rai
Interview with Labour Minister Gokarna Bista
The meeting is happening in Kathmandu just after Nepal signed an MoU with Malaysia to streamline migration, and to minimise the role of middlemen who were fleecing desperate workers. A recent investigation on this issue by the Centre for Investigative Journalism – Nepal and carried by this newspaper prompted the new regime in Kuala Lumpur to work with Nepal’s own Minister for Labour, Gokarna Bista, to hammer out a deal.
As with everything else in Nepal, however, the proof of the pudding will be in the implementation. The migration mafia has tentacles in the bureaucracy and executive, and will be reluctant to give up the lucrative loot of desperate Nepalis. Before sender nations chart out ways to cooperate with each other and negotiate jointly with destination states, they first need to clean up their own house.
The Nepal-Malaysia deal sets a precedent, and is a testament to how sending countries should put their foot down by having a moratorium on workers if necessary until the injustices are addressed. It showed that perhaps by being complacent and not raising our demands clearly, we are missing out on even low hanging fruit that destination countries are readily willing to address. This should not be a race to the bottom. Labour exporters can magnify their bargaining power if they cooperate to strategise, and stop being fearful of a loss of quotas.
Read also: Hounded out of Malaysia, Om Astha Rai
The freedom of being illegal, Upasana Khadka
South Asian workers fill essential job categories, and even though receiving countries will not admit it, their economies depend on imported labour. Our countries need champions who look beyond vested interests at the common good, as we saw with the Nepal-Malaysia deal.
The dozen members of the Colombo Process have a lot in common. One migrant worker in the Gulf told us: “Here, it does not matter which nationality or ethnic group we are, we are all treated the same.” In Kuala Lumpur, undocumented workers are rounded up together, regardless of nationality. One of them said: “We were crammed in a room full of Bangladeshis, Indians, Indonesians and Nepalis.” Female migrant workers have similar experience when arriving at the recruiter’s office in the destination country: “We were women from Sri Lanka, Philippines, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, all waiting for our employers to show up.”
Most migrants have been lured with tantalising dream jobs by merchants, paid agents in home countries exorbitant fees. They have often arrived at the destination to be paid much less than promised. These shared experiences should guide cross-border cooperation within the Colombo Process by boosting their bargaining power with destination countries on minimum wage, facilities and rights.
Illegal, ill-treated, Om Astha Rai
Staying home, Sonia Awale
Competition for lower wages and minimum facilities victimise workers. It is a buyer’s market and workers end up paying more to book a spot with a broker, agents engage in visa trading at the cost of the migrant, and countries fear losing demand quotas for workers.
This should not be a zero sum game, and our governments must put protection of nationals on high priority. After all, they are migrating because of our collective failure to provide meaningful employment at home.
Sending countries could collaborate to increase their presence in destination countries outside the capital where missions are usually centered. One country’s loss in demand due to a ban, should not be seen as another country’s gain – especially when it comes to female workers. No matter their nationality, women from many of our countries are exposed to the same vulnerability. Many migrant workers who are wounded are put on a plane and sent back (as we report on page 14-15), they should get better treatment from their employers and the host government. The Kathmandu meeting should agree on action points on these thematic areas.
This is an apt time to push the Colombo Process into higher gear because of greater attention on destination countries with the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration. In addition, FIFA 2022 in Qatar, the 2020 Olympics in Japan and other global events have put receiving countries with labour shortages under the international spotlight, and increased pressure to clean up their act.
Read also: Unsafe workplaces, Om Astha Rai
Dying to work in Malaysia, Sonia Awale