Nepal’s politicians are prone to hyperbole, and every decade or so they have a habit of declaring that no Nepali will have to go abroad to work.
A more realistic goal would be to make migration as safe as possible, eliminate exploitation and abuse by fellow Nepalis and unscrupulous employers in destination countries, and upgrade migrants’ skills so they earn more. Migrant workers need to be treated with respect at the departure and arrival desks at the airport, as befitting their vital role in propping up this country’s economy.
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Only after we do that, and start generating infrastructure and manufacturing-driven employment through investment-friendly policies back home, can we start boasting that Nepalis don’t have to leave the country anymore to find work. Alas, we don’t see signs of that happening any time soon.
We are stuck with labour migration for the foreseeable future, and we have to make the best of it. There are signs that under Labour Minister Gokarna Bista, economic diplomacy has moved into high gear. Nepal has been playing a leading role on migration matters in South Asia, starting with the declaration at the 2015 SAARC Summit in Kathmandu of Article 21, which enjoins regional countries to collaborate for the welfare of migrant labour in destination countries.
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The SAARC Plan of Action on Labour Migration was adopted in May 2016, and a ministerial declaration of the ‘Colombo Process’ was made in November of that year. South Asian countries also started working together under the umbrella of the ‘Abu Dhabi Dialogue among the Asian Labour Sending and Receiving Countries’. Nepali diplomats and activists have also been active in the Global Compact on Migration, adopted last year, which seeks to ensure ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’.
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Experts at a recent roundtable organised in Kathmandu by SARTUC (South Asian Regional Trade Union Council) and the Hri Institute, and attended by advocacy and labour policy gurus, reaffirmed the natural weakness of sending countries because of competition and lack of political will to coordinate. Destination countries therefore shop for the cheapest labour, for example playing off Bangladeshis against Nepalis.
To a greater or lesser degree, all South Asian labour exporting countries face the same problems of exploitation by middlemen, cheating by employers – as in the recent case of 44 Nepali women tricked into sewing jobs in China, and others rescued from a night club in Mombasa. Although Nepali workers seem to be disproportionately affected by Sudden Death Syndrome because of heat stress, all South Asian workers have higher fatality rates for young men in that age group.
Despite the hardships, Nepalis have a good reputation for hard work. Perhaps because of this, they are assigned to dangerous work on high-rise scaffoldings. Increasingly, Nepalis are also moving into the service sector and managerial positions, taking over from Filipinos.
Yet, the challenges for countries heavily dependent on migrant labour, like Nepal, are growing. They include trafficking of women, and men, as in recent cases in Kenya and Libya. Tensions are brewing between Qatar and the UAE/Saudis, as well as the Saudi-Iranian conflict, an ‘Emeritisation’ happening in the UAE, and East and West African labour are displacing traditional Nepali jobs in construction and security in the Gulf. (The Kenyans come across as smarter, better-dressed and with English competence.) All these events serve to remind us that dependence on remittances is fragile, and we must have a Plan B.
The idea of developing skills for Nepalis before they go overseas has been limited to rhetoric, despite tens of millions of dollars spent by donors and the government.
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Media coverage of issues related to overseas migrant labour tends to obscure the millions of Nepalis, the poorest among the migrants, who go to India. Exact figures are lacking, with Indian diplomats pointing at a high figure of 7 million. But during the Eminent Persons’ Group negotiations a more realistic 3 million figure was presented. The Pew Research Institute has placed Nepal as the seventh largest country sending remittances to India, thanks to migrant workers from Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha.
In this issue, we examine Sudden Death Syndrome, and how the climate crisis will make heat stress a matter of life or death for Nepali workers in the Gulf (page 14-15). Sudden death is classified as ‘natural’ and not ‘workplace related’, preventing workers’ families from collecting insurance. The Nepal government must insist on autopsies of dead workers to pinpoint cause of death, or perform them on bodies when they arrive in Kathmandu. The coffins are also not handled with respect when they arrive via the regular baggage channel at Kathmandu Airport.
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The group Paurakhi has won a writ petition at the Supreme Court ordering the government to create special facilities at the airport for arriving coffins. But there has been no move to implement this.
The Foreign employment Board has now upgraded its curriculum on pre-departure training to make it more relevant and country-specific. That is a welcome step to making migration safer. Let us also make it more worthwhile.