As chair of the Colombo Process, Nepal is hosting the 5th ministerial meeting of this network of 12 labour-sending countries in Kathmandu on 15-16 November. Labour Minister Gokarna Bista spoke to Nepali Times about the recent labour pact with Malaysia, and how this loose forum can promote safe migration. Excerpts:
Nepali Times: How will Nepali migrant workers and Malaysian employers benefit from the bilateral MoU you signed?
Gokarna Bista: Malaysia had been hiring migrant workers from Nepal for over two decades, but the two countries never had a written agreement. Our workers therefore faced problems like lack of minimum pay, social security and workplace safety. Malaysian employers had their own grievances. But we never had a legal or policy framework to address these issues. Now we finally have an agreement that not only protects Nepali migrants but also helps Malaysia manage foreign workers in a dignified way. The pact is even more important for us because it requires Malaysian employers to bear airfare, insurance, visa and security clearance fees previously charged to Nepal’s workers. It also makes it mandatory for employers to deposit the minimum salaries into bank accounts of Nepali workers within the first week of every month. It binds employers to grant workers a 15-day leave if anyone dies in their families.
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But aren’t there challenges in implementing these points?
Those who have been exploiting poor migrant workers probably want to foil this agreement, but I am sure it will be implemented because it reflects the common interests of Nepal and Malaysia, and both governments are committed to promoting safe and dignified migration.
Is this model now going to be applied with Gulf states as well?
We have labour agreements with a few Gulf countries, but they are obsolete. Some do not have provisions for social security, forcing Nepali migrants to work for less than minimum wages. They cannot return home because their passports are controlled by employers. We need to renew and update these agreements with Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, incorporating new measures to tackle new challenges.
How important do you think is the Kathmandu meeting of Colombo Process?
It is very important. There is a sense that destination countries are hiring migrant workers out of charity, making sending countries feel humiliated about exporting manpower. We want to change this misguided notion, and the Kathmandu meeting of the Colombo Process will be crucial in making both sides feel respected. It may be a loose forum of 12 labour-sending countries, but it will certainly amplify the voice for zero-cost and hassles-free labour migration. It can be a win-win.
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What is your take on the ban on Nepali housemaids?
A parliamentary committee had directed the government in early 2017 to bar Nepali women from going abroad as housemaids. We need to review this, and have already begun discussions with the parliamentary committee. But before taking a decision on the ban, what we really want is to have exclusive MoUs with countries that want housemaids from Nepal. We want to ensure that Nepali domestics are paid well, have a safe place to live, stipulated working hours and a safe environment in which to work.
Many migrant workers return home wounded. How can we tackle this problem?
When Nepali workers get wounded or disabled while working abroad, they are simply dumped by their employers and they have to be taken care of by the Nepal government and their families. So we are holding talks with governments of labour-receiving countries to ensure that employers also take responsibility for wounded workers. Malaysia has already agreed, and I hope other countries will follow suit.
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