What are some of the common challenges faced by Nepali migrants in Saudi Arabia?
When there are hundreds of thousands of workers, there are bound to be problems. Our challenge is to minimise them. A large number of migrants who come to Saudi Arabia are not well oriented to the culture, laws, practices and even their own terms of employment as stated in the contract. They sign whatever they are made to sign.
While there is a mandatory pre-departure orientation for migrants, I can tell from the receiving end here that workers still lack basic knowledge of life in Saudi Arabia when they arrive. This needs to be urgently addressed. There are many Nepalis in jail because they did not fully comprehend the consequences of dealing with alcohol, or did not have the driving skills despite coming here as drivers which also makes them prone to accidents.
These issues can be avoided with proper orientation and training. I am not sure where the lapses are in the pre-departure training — either in the curriculum, duration or the mode of delivery or something else, but this needs to be reevaluated so that it is not just a formality. All workers need not be fluent in Arabic, but even having a basic grasp of some common terminology as part of the pre-departure orientation would help them adjust better. There are also problems with payment of wages that puts workers in a difficult position.
We have seen that those who work with supply companies are more prone to this because they take a good chunk of the salary paid by the main company the workers are supplied to. To the extent possible, direct employment with employers without going via supply companies needs to be prioritised.
Despite being a major destination country, Nepal does not have a bilateral labour agreement with Saudi Arabia. Why is that?
There is already a comprehensive draft labour agreement between the two countries that has undergone multiple iterations but with Covid-19 which took up all our attention, the agreement is yet to be finalised. A bilateral agreement would give us a platform to step on the mutually agreed provisions to advocate for worker protection, whether it is to obtain updated information on all current migrants based in Saudi Arabia, to deal with compensation cases after accidents etc.
We already rely on the relevant Saudi laws, but that is unilateral and we have not been able to enjoy the privilege of a bilateral agreement where we raise and address issues specific to Nepalis. Formalising the agreement should be a key priority. I would say that it is premature to discuss the deployment of domestic workers unless we sign a comprehensive labour agreement that addresses the vulnerabilities of the sector.
The general draft is ready, and should be finalised and signed as soon as the situation normalises. Emphasis should also be given to a cooperation agreement in other areas such as trade, investment and education. We have to further strengthen our diplomatic relationship of which labour diplomacy is a part.
What are the practical challenges, especially when embassies have resource constraints?
Resource constraint is more of a challenge in Saudi Arabia just because of the sheer size of the country (2.15 million sq km) compared to other countries in the region. We also have an estimated 350,000 migrants scattered across the country. Right now, we have one labour counsellor in Riyadh and a labour attaché in Jeddah dealing only with labour issues. This is not sufficient so other embassy staff also spend a lot of their time on migrant welfare.
Let’s say a worker who is based 1,000 km away needs legal support and representation in the court. Saudi law requires that the case be dealt with in the court that is closest to the worker/employer, which means we need the vehicle and manpower, including legal representatives and interpreters on the ground.
The cases may require multiple visits. We have had to deal with over 800 cases, and have managed to get workers compensation of a total of Rs320 million, but each case takes time and resources. Cases related to repatriation of bodies of workers and compensation to their families are the most challenging.
This is in addition to the day-to-day tasks at the embassy. There is also a need to move towards digitisation but that will require more skilled IT professionals in the embassy. While I do need to acknowledge that MoFA in Kathmandu has addressed our budgetary constraints over the years by doubling it from when I first came here, there is a mismatch between available resources and the need. This discrepancy was further amplified during Covid-19 when a lot more Nepalis needed support.