“We have set aside Rs750 million to fund repatriation of stranded workers, and we will add to it if necessary,” said Rajan Shrestha of the Foreign Employment Board (FEB), adding that it would not just cover international airfare costs but also domestic transport to home districts.
The directive recognises that displaced workers in their first year of contract are some of the most vulnerable given that they are still struggling to pay recruitment costs associated with their employment, often borrowed informally at back-breaking interest rates.
It tries to hold recruiters and employers who profit from foreign employment accountable. Shrestha explained: “For workers with valid contracts, employers have the primary responsibility towards workers including buying return tickets. The recruiter is also jointly liable. We have to exhaust these options and ensure everyone is playing their part.”
Employers who breach contracts by not assuming responsibility for repatriation of workersor clearing their salaries and other dues will be barred by the FEB from hiring Nepali workers for the next five years. It is not clear how migrant workers who were charged exorbitant recruitment fees but had to return prematurely will be handled.
As with very thing else in Nepal, the challenge now lies in implementing the directive. It requires embassies and recruitment agencies to be particularly responsive and proactive to help migrants who meet the criteria for repatriation support.
Sujit Shrestha of the Nepal Association of Foreign Agencies (NAFEA) said: “We have a comprehensive Foreign Employment Act that holds all players responsible but a weakness is the lack of clarity when employers go into situations of force majeure invoking a situation like COVID-19.”
He said the directive can be followed if the employer is still operating but has reduced workforce size, but it is not clear what happens when employers use the ‘circumstances beyond their control’ clause.
“The Nepal government also needs to play a more proactive role via diplomatic efforts, especially with countries with which we have signed bilateral labour agreements,” Shrestha added.
A downside is that workers who do not have valid labour approvals, and are some of the most vulnerable during this crisis, will not be able to benefit from this contributory fund. This includes domestic workers who traveled through irregular channels because of the ban, for whom an alternative like the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 Fund could be used.
But there are also others could step in to set up a fund, like Nepal’s development partners and the private sector. Also, recruiters recently contributed Rs3.5 million to the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 Fund which could have been channeled for migrant-specific need if such a basket fund existed.
The directive, if properly implemented, could serve as an example for other migrant-sending countries also facing challenges in repatriating vulnerable workers and have similar Welfare Funds. The pandemic has laid bare Nepal’s gross unpreparedness for emergency support to migrants.
Previous attempts to set up a Rapid Rescue Team in the Ministry of Labour failed while lessons from earlier large-scale repatriations such as from Libya in 2011 are poorly documented and did not serve to inform the repatriation strategy during this pandemic.
Like the Philippines, Nepal also needs a contingency plan for overseas workers and rapid response teams that activate during such periods for evacuation and welfare. The directive could be an important starting point.