After toiling for 18 months in Qatar as a ‘target earner’, Oli returned to Nepal with savings of Rs650,000 to begin his preparation for the Korean EPS. In 2017, he failed his exam. Undeterred, he studied harder for the next one and was one of the 7,996 who passed it, out of 82,264 test-takers in 2018.
“I cannot afford to go to the US. The only option for people like us to try to go to the US is via irregular channels, which costs over 40 lakhs (Rs4 million). Savings in the Middle East or Malaysia are nominal, so I was eyeing Japan and Korea as the best alternatives,” he explains. “In Korea, I can expect to earn one crore (Rs 10 million) in 4 years 10 months, an amount that would be impossible elsewhere.”
But his dreams came crashing down with the onset of the pandemic. Oli was matched with his employer on 3 March, 2020. But unfortunately his employer cancelled his contract in December after he had been waiting for over six months.
The pandemic has thrown the prospect of the new cohorts of aspirant EPS workers in a limbo. The flight restrictions, lockdown and the classification of Nepal by South Korea in the ‘red zone’ for public health reasons has riddled the past year with uncertainties.
“They have other options to bring in workers from East Asian countries where mobility has not been barred, so it is understandable,” Bhim Oli says. “Thankfully, I have been matched with another employer but am worried that I will again lose this opportunity if things don’t change soon.”
His story is not unique.
For Ajay Sodari from Kailali, the lure of South Korea came from the transformation he saw in the living standard in the life of an acquaintance. It seemed within reach for someone like him from a humble background, if he only put in the effort.
Unfortunately, he failed the Korean language test in Kathmandu in 2018. Unable to afford another expensive stay in Kathmandu, he went to Himachal, India for four months to pick apples, earned around Rs80,000 and used that money to survive in the city as he prepared diligently.
“I studied around 18 hours a day for the language test—I had not studied that hard for my SLC, 12th or Bachelors, but I finally managed to pass in 2019,” says Sodari. It was also the year that the government of Korea made an additional skills test mandatory, so it took another few months of preparation. Luckily, he passed. Altogether, 92,000 individuals took the test that year, of which only 12,000 passed.
Sodari was selected to work in an aluminium company. He was thrilled when the cabinet decided in May 2020, to let workers head to South Korea. But the decision has been confined to announcements, as none of the migrants have been able to travel.
Frustrated, and knowing that there were thousands of others in his situation, Sodari started a group called EPS Struggle Committee and staged a protest at the Mandala in Kathmandu. They have held three such protests in the last 13 months, bringing together hundreds of migrants from all over Nepal, but to no avail.
The group has turned to various authorities for help, beginning from labour ministers, to Korean and Nepal government authorities. While they are only met with empty promises and false assurances, they remain persistent in their efforts to get things moving. But the absence of a Nepali ambassador in Seoul for the last two years has adversely affected active diplomacy.