The willingness to bypass the ban to improve their lives is also fuelled by the pressing demand for domestic workers abroad which was growing in the Gulf at 9% annually pre-pandemic. Now, with family members are home at all times, domestic workers are under added pressure to work more without adequate compensation. While many sectors face the brunt of pandemic-induced economic fallout, the care economy is expected to grow in the Gulf region and beyond. For Nepali women, whose share in overseas employment has been limited at around 10% annually, overseas options in non-care sectors has remained poor.
But defying the ban means women are not recorded as migrants by the government. It also results in lack of pre-departure training, inability to hold agents accountable, and makes them ineligible for welfare programs — all part of the legalised recruitment process.
After years of the ban being decried for its ineffectiveness and unintended consequences, in October the Parliamentary Committee on Industry, Commerce, Labour and Consumer Interest instructed that the ban be removed under certain conditions.
Says Bimal Prasad Shrivastav, Chair of the Committee, who led a review trip to the Gulf before the pandemic to assess the situation of domestic workers: “Rather than a blanket ban, we have recommended that country- specific policies be taken to address the situation of domestic workers.” For example, the committee has recommended that the ban be lifted for the UAE, which has taken proactive steps in domestic worker reform, and with which Nepal has signed a labour MOU. A similar agreement is also being signed with Oman.
“With countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there are currently no MOUs and they need to be prioritised urgently,” says Shrivastav, “while an MOU is an essential condition, it is not sufficient and we have made a series of other recommendations after considerable deliberations.”
In addition to a comprehensive bilateral labour agreement, these preconditions include a separate domestic worker law, a strong joint mechanism to resolve issues faced by domestic workers, pre-departure training — including of the local language — and post-arrival training, equality of treatment between Nepalis and locals, penalties for sponsors who abuse domestic workers, and easy access of domestic workers to communicate with consular officials and families back home.
In early November, Saudi Arabia made some reforms to foreign worker regulations, including giving workers the freedom to change jobs legally to travel outside the country without their employer’s permission. However the changes, which will be effective from March 2021 and are considered a bold effort to dismantle the infamous Kafala system, do not apply to domestic workers. Similar reforms made in Qatar in August this year do,however, apply to domestic workers.
But as with all lofty policies, it all boils down to implementation. Bilateral agreements and other policies are only useful if they prevent other migrant workers like Lilamaya Dhimal from abuse by inhumane employers.
Om Thapa and Lekhnath Khatiwada helped in reporting this piece.