But little did we know that almost two years down the road, Parajuli would be just one of the handful of Nepalis who would benefit from this agreement despite the head start.
The agreement was a hybrid of the existing agreements Nepal has with other countries: it was neither a purely government-to-government model like that with South Korea or Israel, nor did it allow recruiters to play a role like the agreements with Malaysia and select Gulf countries. It was signed under a government-to-business model in which the Nepal Government proposed setting up a Japan Unit at the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) to oversee all aspects of the SSW implementation.
On the Japan side, the government played a more hands-off role and allowed the private sector to participate including employers, recruiters and support organisations. “This mixed modality is creating widespread confusion as there is a misconception that this is a government-to-government modality, while it isn’t,” says Yuzo Yoshioka, Charge d’Affaires, Embassy of Japan in Nepal.
This government-to-business model envisioned a proactive government that would take on added responsibilities in lieu of the recruiters via the Japan Unit. It was an attempt to ensure that the flawed technical implementation experiences related to the past programs would not be further exacerbated in this model, forcing workers to pay hefty amounts to land in the destination job market. Especially, noting that the Japanese Government did not want to be involved in the cost issue but trusted the involved employer-worker to mutually agree on such details. This was viewed as risky for Nepal, given the trend of rampant malpractices that worsen with the attractiveness of destination countries.
The success of this hybrid model, however, rested on a proactive Japan Unit that imitated the private sector’s strengths in marketing, matching, information sharing and employer engagement. Most recruiters are very good at following up on these details, but these comparative advantages are obscured by the malpractices in the industry, often at the cost of the most vulnerable workers.
To be fair, the overall SSW program itself has had a rough start. The number of countries that Japan has signed agreements with has increased over the last two years with the addition of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and most recently, India. But deployment has been poor across the board.
Started in April 2019, SSW1 visas have only been issued to 8,769 workers (see figure) as of September 2020, which is less than a tenth of the target. Over 60% are from Vietnam, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. Many of them were already based in Japan under other statuses, who simply changed their residence status to SSW1. For a program that has had a bumpy start, the onset of Covid-19 further derailed progress.