Here are your choices:
1. Remain in your village, the home you’ve known all your life, surrounded by loving friends and family, eating dal bhat twice a day and hoping to pick up enough work here and there to send your growing children to good schools, provide nutritious food for your soon-to-arrive baby and avoid moving to far-away, expensive Kathmandu to find work.
2. Follow in the footsteps of many friends and acquaintances from your village and district: borrow money from the same loving relatives and friends to cobble together the lakhs demanded by a middleman who will promise you a good job, a plane ticket and a visa to Malaysia or the Gulf.
For decades, thousands of Nepalis have reluctantly chosen Option 2. Yes, some of them went not so hesitantly because they were pulled not just by the need to earn as by the thrill of cities abroad, but even for the adventurers the months and years away must start to weigh heavily.
Women hold up more than half the sky, Achyutraj Bhandari
A vision for vocations, Monika Deupala
War in Gulf would hit Nepal economy hard
As a recent report reminds us again, migrant workers often sacrifice the comfort of family and country at great personal peril. Nearly 6,000 Nepalis were reported to have died working in foreign countries between 2008 and 2017. More than 800 were disabled, while an earlier report pegged the figure at over 1,000. Both numbers are likely low as only in recent years has it become widely known among workers that some compensation is available.
How many more Nepalis living and toiling under the baking desert sun of the Gulf or in Malaysia have been arrested or cheated by employers, or by others lurking somewhere inside the shadowy process of labour migration?
Yet these are the women and men who have helped to keep Nepal afloat during very turbulent times. At some point in the last decade the money that migrant workers sent home was making up one-third of the country’s economy. Even today, when numbers have declined, remittances inject a quarter of the fuel into Nepal’s growth project. Just over a year ago monthly remittances hit an all-time high of $680 million.
Bargaining power, Editorial
Belabouring the obvious, Editorial
And yet, we expect more from migrants — those with the least who are willing to give up the most to attain the prosperity that, frankly, all Nepalis seek. Often we hear that remittances are being spent on ‘non-productive’ items. A recent media article asserted that the money doesn’t even contribute to economic growth.
This is akin to biting the hand that feeds you. A recent survey reported in this paper found that most of the $6.6 million that the 4 million Nepalis working abroad sent home was used for basics like food (60%), clothing (42%), medical treatment (36%) and children’s education (35%). Only a small amount (10%) was invested in land and just 6.5% was saved in a bank.
How is this not productive? That money is being spent in local shops run by local people, who in turn pay the farmers, garment makers and others who supply the items on sale. More remittances are spent in local pharmacies, hospitals and schools, where much of it will be dispersed throughout the community, providing the money that the workers’ neighbours will spend, according to their own needs. A portion might even be set aside to invest in a gold bangle, just as middle-class Kathmanduites do every day.
Yes, ideally the small portion that some migrant workers manage to save would be invested in schemes to finance hydroelectric or other development projects. But even after years of promises, governments have failed to provide any enticing alternatives.
That is why it is encouraging to read in this week’s issue about the Nepal Vocational Academy, whose visionary founder is targeting youth who are eyeing overseas opportunities, and plans to set up training centres country-wide. Perhaps it will be small-scale efforts like this, ride-sharing or similar ventures, and micro-enterprises in the increasingly high-end Nepali crafts industry that will finally provide the irresistible draw for migrant workers’ capital.
Swiss Ambassador Elisabeth von Capeller Oswald stated it plainly in an interview last week: “A lot depends on migrants who contribute to the development of this country.” It’s time that all of us started to acknowledge that, and for the government to start investing in migrant workers, before, during and after their absence from home.