Nepal may be pushing a rights-based approach to migration, and while this may be necessary, sticking to just principles may end up being counterproductive.
When recruitment costs for workers from Bangladesh and Pakistan are three to four times that of Nepal, our attempts to unilaterally control costs will fall short. International frameworks like the Colombo Process to find a common voice among migrant sending countries do exist, but they have very little to show for.
They have not done much to address the common plight of their workers during the pandemic, precisely when such international cooperation was needed the most. Either we need to admit that these loose platforms are not meant to create any tangible difference on the ground, or the Colombo Process needs to be revamped so it is more than just a forum to share experiences.
Within Nepal as well, there is no carrot for good-performers and the ‘stick’ is always just for show because the same leaders governing recruiters are also colluding with them behind doors to allow the status quo to remain. As with everything else, as long as corrupt leaders meddle with this industry, there is very little incentive for any real change.
Even a conservative estimate of recruitment costs of $1,000 per worker means that in 2018/19, over Rs28 billion was floating around, a fraction of which can be earmarked to influence policy decisions and even, who gets to stay a minister.
It is just a matter of time before workers will be once more lining up for labour approvals. Nepal’s migrant recruitment industry shares commonalities with the lemon market for used cars, where the whole industry is viewed with suspicion and distrust, given difficulties distinguishing the good ones (peaches) from the frauds (lemons).
Clamping down on recruiters is necessary given prevalent malpractices, but it is also important to acknowledge the contribution in matching workers at scale from every corner of Nepal for jobs abroad. The government would not have been able to manage this on its own. Other labour exporting countries like India are also facing a similar dilemma – how to minimise recruiters’ malpractices while using their contribution during the pandemic.
The role of recruitment agencies in driving diversification to new destination countries, and higher skilled sectors will be crucial in the post-pandemic phase if the demand for Nepali workers in the Gulf and Malaysia drops.