The Nepal Communist Party government, with Prime Minister KP Oli at the helm, is nearing two years in office. It has been taken to task for non-performance and under-performance. And rightly so. When it does take a decision it is usually the wrong one, like the project to fell a vast tract of forest for an airport that may never be built, or sabotaging Melamchi.
There is a lot to be critical of about the present government. They give profound speeches, make wild promises, pass the buck, come up with excuses and when nothing works, threaten the messenger of bad tidings.
Yet, there are ministers in government who are working quietly behind the scenes to get things done. They do not say much, they speak softly and carry a big stick. The late Minister of Tourism Rabindra Adhikari was one of them, and he multitasked to get various projects off the ground. His death in a helicopter crash in April was a tragic loss for the country.
Alas his successor, Yogesh Bhattarai, though full of youthful energy and ambition, has fallen into the trap of making populist proclamations and issuing daft orders like playing the national anthem during evening prayers at Pashupati.
Another NCP Young Turk in the cabinet who we do not hear much from is Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security Gokarna Bista. Even as energy minister in the Jhalnath Khanal administration in 2012, Bista was known for his low profile and no-nonsense style.
In May 2018, as labour minister, Bista took the unprecedented step of stopping Nepalis from going to Malaysia to work, soon after a crossborder investigation by this newspaper, Himal Khabarpatrika and Malaysiakini exposed corrupt Nepali and Malaysian officials and private companies overcharging more than Rs5 billion ($450 million) from over 600,000 Nepali workers between September 2013 and April 2018.
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It was regime change in both Malaysia and Nepal that allowed the recruitment mechanism to be overhauled. Officials and private companies in Malaysia, with political protection in the Barisan Nasional coalition of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, worked with influential brokers in Kathmandu to cheat Nepali workers.
In July, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission began prosecution against Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister and Internal Affairs Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Among the many charges against him was taking a $10 million bribe to permit company Ultra Kirana become a One Stop Centre for visa processing and labour migration from Nepal and other countries.
No one has yet been charged in Nepal. Instead, Minister Bista came under pressure from powerful businesses with political protection, who had been profiting from fees levied on Nepali migrant workers.
Despite this, Bista’s ministry pushed through an MoU with Malaysian Minister for Human Resources M Kulasegeran last year, which requires employers to pay for visa fees and air tickets of Nepali workers, as well as for other facilities.
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It took almost a whole year for the technical details of that deal to be worked out by a joint working committee, which finalised them in Kuala Lumpur on 12 September, opening the door for the resumption of Nepali workers going to Malaysia.
All credit for ironing out this deal goes to Ministers Bista and Kulasegeran, who have kept the welfare of workers at the forefront of all negotiations. As the minister told this newspaper in an interview last week, the goal has been to ensure that workers are not exploited, spend less on fees, earn decent pay and are treated well in the workplace.
Nepali migrant workers have been made to jump through hoops to get their paperwork done. They face harassment and demands for payoffs every step of the way before departure. Bista insisted on tackling this culture and making it as convenient as possible for workers to get the necessary tests and documents before departure.
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In fact, one of the reasons for the delay in negotiations was Nepal’s insistence that the 37 institutions the Malaysians had recognised to do medical tests for workers needed to be increased to 122, and be located throughout the country. The ministry is also working to allow Nepali missions abroad, as well as provincial governments, to renew work permits.
As with everything else in Nepal, laws and agreements are not enough. There are too many vested interest groups that have profited for too long from the sweat and blood of poor Nepali workers who will want to see this agreement fail.
But let us give credit where it is due. And at this paper we are committed to keeping readers informed on progress.
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