Politics is dirty. The manpower business is dirtier. Mixing the two can mean the difference of life or death for hundreds of thousands of desperate Nepalis seeking work overseas.
Labour Minister Gokarna Bista was sacked last week in the cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister K P Oli under pressure from the recruitment mafia – the cartel of unscrupulous middlemen who profit from the blood, sweat and tears of fellow Nepalis. The recruiters had been baying for his head ever since Bista started dismantling the corrupt system that profited from exploiting and abusing workers.
Immediately after the minister’s removal, the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA) published a press release warning the Nepal government’s Department of Foreign Employment to take decisions only after consultation with them. Is that a threat? You bet it is. And it shows just how powerful the mafia is that it can go about intimidating the state.
What is more, NAFEA’s blatant warning was a not-so-subtle ‘you are next’ reminder to Bista’s successor, Rameswar Rai Yadav, not to deign obstruct their rent-seeking activities by pushing through Bista’s reforms.
Prime Minsiter Oli ostensibly carried out his long-awaited reshuffle to address public disillusionment with his administration’s failure of governance. Given that honest heads rolled, politicians with questionable reputation were inducted, and corrupt non-performers were retained, the intention was to consolidate Oli’s position ahead of his prolonged absence for health reasons. It had nothing to do with rewarding integrity and effectiveness.
Bista represented a much-needed voice in the foreign employment industry, but his strong stance against unscrupulous recruiters cost him his job. Within weeks of assuming power, he stopped workers from going to Malaysia in order to break the syndicate that was overcharging workers. His ministry amended the Foreign Employment Act, reducing the number of manpower companies from over 1,200 to 850 by increasing their security deposit and facilitating mergers. This was to ensure that only professional and honest organisations remained in the industry, and to stop recruitment companies from cutting competition by engaging in visa trading.
Bista was aggressively pursuing bilateral agreements with countries including Malaysia, Japan, UAE and Mauritius, which included provisions on equal pay for equal work and zero cost for migrant workers. To minimise fraudulent job offers his ministry required that all demand letters for workers be verified at Nepali diplomatic missions abroad. The agreement with Japan barred recruitment agencies, given the record of aspirant workers paying more than Rs1 million each for opportunities in Japan. These pro-worker reforms cut the illegitimate profits of recruitment agencies who had it easy in the past and consequently, vociferously contested his position.
Bista was starting to get crossborder recognition for his initiatives. Following the signing of the Nepal-Malaysia MoU, a writ submitted at the Supreme Court in Dhaka against a recruitment syndicate in Bangladesh that sent workers to Malaysia referred to Bista’s initiative as a model. He took a lead in the Colombo Process to bring labour-sending countries together.
Yet, his sacking was expected. A recent editorial in this paper warned about how many wanted the Malaysia agreement to fail. In the last 20 months, the wave of rumours about Bista’s possible ousting had demoralised his ministry. Bista’s comrades in the party were protecting the mafia, and were also jealous of his popularity as a can-do labour minister, and in his previous job as water resource minister.
Reshuffling politicians comes with consequences that are not immediately apparent. The bureaucrats Bista inspired are despondent. The message this episode conveys is discouraging for any Nepali who wants to innovate, break the status quo, and who does not want to be complacent. It is too early to judge the new labour minister’s capacity or integrity. But Bista’s unceremonious ouster sends the message to others in government is to lie low and play it safe.
Bista’s zero-cost migration initiative would have been difficult to enforce not just for Nepal but for all labour-sending countries faced with this shared challenge. With his departure, the Oli administration has sent a clear message that predatory recruiters are free to swindle poor Nepali workers as much as they want, exploiting their desperation for jobs.
Lasts Thursday on 21 November, Bista walked out of Singha Darbar after his farewell event and took a taxi home. He looked undefeated, perhaps validated by the outpouring of support in the social media. His last words to his despondent team and gathered media: “The post of a minister is temporary. Life itself is temporary. I am coming out of this with more inspiration and vigour to serve the country.”