Nepali Times: How important is last week’s agreement with Malaysia?
Gokarna Bista: Nepali workers were being cheated by middlemen, not only was that unjust, but it made the poor poorer and the rich richer. Both Malaysia and Nepal had seen a change of government, and after I became minister we started negotiations with my Malaysian counterpart, Malaysian Minister of Human Resources M Kulasegaran who was aware of labour rights and the need to safeguard them. We shared a good rapport, and both of us wanted a mutually beneficial arrangement for Nepali workers in Malaysia.
So why did it take so long?
Our MoU was a broad agreement, but the Joint Working Group had to sort out technical details. It was not easy to break the syndicates running medical tests, and we recommended that 122 new test centres to be approved all over the country for transparency and to decentralise testing. We mutually agreed to include security guard category in the agreement which was originally not in the scope of the MOU. They are now sending a team to audit these new centres outside Kathmandu to ensure that they meet their parameters.
How difficult was it to face political pressure in Nepal against the deal?
We had to work hard to iron out the details. There was a lot of money going to the pockets of middlemen in both countries for levees, visa fees, medical tests. Both sides agreed that it was unfair for the workers to bear these costs. From now on the workers do not have to pay for their roundtrip tickets, visa fees, they will get their salaries by the 7th of every month, they will be paid overtime, have social security benefits, they get tickets to go home every two years, they get paid leave for 15 days if either parent dies, work-related accidents will be compensated, and if workers die employers will bear the cost of the repatriation of their bodies. We have made sure that Nepali recruiters are paid a small fee by the employers of up to half a month salary.
There are very few countries with such iron-clad safeguards for workers, and this sets a precedent for other labour-exporting countries. The Nepal-Malaysia agreement could be a model for migrant worker agreement in other countries as well.
But can this agreement be replicated?
We have a similar agreement now with the UAE and Mauritius, and are about to sign a labour pact with Oman that will also ensure worker rights. We are in negotiation with Qatar. We are also talking with higher quality labour markets like Germany and Portugal for Nepali workers.
We have signed a deal with Japan for workers in 14 job categories, and the first caregivers will be going this year. They had opened up the worker quotas for only seven countries, but after much lobbying they added Nepal, the only South Asian country.
How about female domestic workers who cannot come home because of the ban?
I spoke to the Parliamentary Committee, and we agreed that it was inhumane and unjust to stop the workers to come home on holidays to be with their families because they were afraid they could not go back to their jobs. It is true that domestic work is risky for Nepali women but I argued that current domestic workers would not go back anyway if their jobs were not satisfactory. But we have to ensure more protection before we allow new female domestic workers to go.
What other reforms are you working on?
We will now allow all seven provincial capitals to renew Labour Permits so migrant workers do not have to travel to Kathmandu to get travel documents. Nepali missions abroad will also be allowed to renew Labour Permits. Ultimately, all documentation will be online. Once Bhairawa and Pokhara airports are built, many workers will not have to come to Kathmandu at all.
Ultimately our goal is secure, safe, and exploitation free quality jobs overseas for our citizens. We are not going to be driven by how many go abroad to work, but how much they earn, and how well they are treated. We want to equip them with the skills so they do not have to do the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs. We also want Nepalis to come back with knowhow so there is technology transfer.