Shambhu Niroula, a legal adviser to the National Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), says the non-discriminatory clause in the 2007 Act was a huge achievement. “It wasn’t just the non-discriminatory clause, there were also examples of positive discrimination to level the playing field like returning the costs of orientation fees to women migrants,” he says, adding that the proposed rules are regressive.
But directives such as the ban on domestic workers that are predominantly female contradict the non-discriminatory legal clauses, and the new proposed rule is a regressive addition impacting women.
The latest ban on domestic workers was put in place in 2017 after Parliament committee visited the Gulf in early 2020 and decided it was unsafe for domestic workers, regardless of gender. After a similar trip to the Gulf by a team led by Bimal Prasad Shrivastav, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Industry, Commerce, Labour and Consumer Interest instructed the government to revisit the ban.
“We have recommended country specific policies for domestic workers abroad,” he said. The criteria include having a bilateral labour agreement, a separate domestic worker law, pre-departure training, equality of treatment between Nepalis and locals, and easy access to communicate with consular officials and families back home.
These preconditions were still deemed restrictive, but better than previous rules. However, Covid-19 derailed action. The pandemic itself impacted women workers abroad disproportionately, especially those who had traveled through India or on visit visas since they did not exist in government records and were ineligible for any support from Foreign Employment Welfare Fund.
There are also questions about the requirement that women need permission from the local ward before they can go abroad. They should instead be mobilised to help aspirants make informed decisions via counseling and information campaign. They also have the proximity advantage to monitor illicit activities.
The reactive ban or restrictions on travel that disproportionately target women are lazy because the alternative requires stakeholders to be proactive, engage in bilateral discussions with destination country governments, have strong inter-agency coordination, hold complicit immigrant officials accountable, ramp up action against traffickers, train and inform workers on safe practices, to look for safer, legal pathways, to create jobs at home, and clamp down on domestic violence.
Instead, they have come up with bizarre policies with detrimental consequences that do not address the problem at hand, but have unintended but predictable consequences.
Nepalis reacting on social media to the proposal have questioned on what grounds is a ‘guardian’ eligible to grant permission for a woman to travel. ‘Why should men under 40 be spared from this provision?’ asked one. How will the consent from the guardian and local authority address trafficking, said another. What if the same guardian is the very source of domestic violence from which the woman is escaping for overseas work?