Making overseas migration betterThe RSP has a responsibility to fulfil its pledge to improve the wellbeing of Nepali migrant workers
As usual, a flight from the Gulf to Kathmandu one evening this week was full of returning migrant workers. The excitement in the cabin was palpable. Passengers peered out of the window as Himalayan peaks on the horizon drew nearer.
A passenger on the aisle seat works in a café in Dubai and was coming home after 2 years. A taxi driver from Abu Dhabi had not seen his new-born daughter, and was coming home with enough savings to build a new house. A bar manager connecting from a flight from London was returning for her annual vacation, and going to Pokhara to get married.
As they stepped off, some knelt to finger the tarmac and touch their foreheads as a mark of respect for the motherland. There was loud chatter on the ramp bus, and even the long queue at the health check that stretched out into the apron was not enough to diminish the enthusiasm.
Nepal’s media commentators express shock that 630,089 labour approvals were issued in 2021/22, and highlight the departure concourse at Kathmandu airport as a symbol of citizens failed by their country. But here in the arrival section of the airport in the same year, 470,978 workers returned to Nepal.
The financial remittances and economic exposure they come home with are, however, not being leveraged for sustained wellbeing of their families and the national economy.
Nepal’s new government has a unique chance to adopt a bold new worker-centred approach to streamline the migrant labour sector. The bar has been set low by previous governments, so if the new coalition cannot help, it should at least do no harm.
After all, migrant worker rights played an important role in building support for former tv anchor Rabi Lamichhane when he decided to enter politics. Today, as Chair of the independent Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), he is Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, playing a key role in the 7-party coalition government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Lamichhane’s सिधा कुरा जनतासंग (Straight Talk with Citizens) was a television program that many migrant workers in distress reached out to when stranded abroad, or were duped by recruiters.
When unanswered embassy calls are the norm, and the government fails to stay digitally connected with its dispersed citizens abroad, making himself approachable even as a journalist mattered to Lamichhane.
Which is why it made sense that his party got the labour portfolio, presenting an opportunity for Nepal’s migrant worker community that has been yearning for reform. But questions have also been raised about the RSP's commitment to integrity and good governance ever since Lamichhane got himself appointed as Minister of Home Affairs. He will be heading a ministry that was probing his controversial citizenship matter.
RSP's appointment of Dol Prasad Aryal as Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Service has also raised concerns about conflict of interest due to his reported links to recruitment firms and a remittance company.
Aryal has denied it, and his supporters have given him the benefit of doubt, saying it may be better than past labour ministers from mainstream parties who were clueless about how overseas migration works, and (what's worse) were in the payroll of recruiters. Besides, there will be watchdogs within his RSP who could keep him in check.
The RSP’s stance on foreign employment is to forge a society in which Nepalis are not forced to migrate (“रोजगारीका लागि बाध्यतावश देश छोड्नु नपर्ने समाजको परिकल्पना गर्दछौ”). Its policies focus on a one-stop shop for migrant workers, investment incentives for productive use of remittances, diversification of overseas work, higher skilled opportunities, reintegrating returnee migrant workers, and rapid response arrangements for those in distress.
These are all reasonable goals, and ones we have heard before in past pledges by previous governments. What Nepalis always needed was implementation of those promises. After all, the RSP’s stunning victory in the November 2022 elections was partly due to its commitment to do things differently, and to get things done. This is what voters are hoping for.
And getting things done in emigration requires bolder and more innovative interventions than what we have been accustomed to. Regulation and facilitation are both needed in a balanced approach. What we hear a lot in the media is call for regulation, and that is because corruption and political patronage have made it weak. Facilitation, for its part, has never been a priority.
Over 90% of Nepali workers abroad (except India) are handled by the private sector. Recruiters serve an important function of matching workers with overseas jobs, but they are mired in unhealthy, fierce competition, not just among themselves, but also with agencies in other countries competing to procure job orders.
Getting job orders, any type of job with a disregard to employment terms, and at any cost (given assurances that workers will pay) has been the norm -- as many Nepali workers in the Gulf related recently. Cases of migrants getting duped by recruiters or those who pretend to be recruiters are far too common.
It is a national disgrace that migrant workers who are desperate to improve their lives, suffer as a result. The public has pinned its hope on the RSP to boldly regulate the migrant labour sector with integrity, and prevent swindlers and fraudsters to manipulate decisions. It may help that Rabi Lamichhane is also Minister for Home Affairs.
To deliver practical results, however, the private sector needs to be involved since there are 880 ‘manpower’ agencies which have enabled millions of Nepalis to become good providers for their families back home.
How else would a worker in a village in Dhanusha or Banke who has never left his village, or is not technologically savvy, find employment at a Dubai-based company? How will they ever navigate the layers of bureaucracy imposed by the government and kickbacks every step of the way?
This intermediary role of the recruiting agency is vital, and we cannot wish it away. The trouble is that it gets obscured in the daily media bombardment of dire experiences of migrants being exploited, hoodwinked or abused.
A genuinely bold strategy focused on migrant worker welfare could make the overseas labour intermediation sector more professional so it can operate like any other human resource entity, providing a critical transnational job-matching function.
Recruiters are often notorious for cheating workers, but usually it is that a share of the “pie” has to be set aside for politicians, party cadres and bureaucrats up the food chain. As per the law, they deposit high escrow amounts and have to clear many bureaucratic hurdles that complicate and delay their departure of migrant workers they send, which can annoy their clients overseas, who are employers.
The practical challenges facing the recruitment industry are immense because the process is international, it is fueled by desperation and aspiration, competition from within and beyond Nepal’s borders, with tens of thousands of intermediaries, as well as negotiations with foreign employers who themselves are looking for ways to minimise costs.
What we are missing are actual interventions to make the migrant labour sector more streamlined and transparent. There is a lot of lip service about reforming recruitment practices, lofty principles are bandied about with non-binding, soft commitments and moralism that mean little in practice. Interventions are far removed from the ground reality, but they need to start where we are, not where we need to ideally be.
Good recruiters can market themselves better to attract the best employers with strong employment practices. If not, 'manpowers' will continue to resort to ‘buying job demands’ from employers which can include companies that do not take good care of hired workers.
Job agencies respond better to the labour and recruitment standards set by employers in ways they do not feel accountable to the government, the public or the policies in place, as what really matters to them is their bottom line.
Among all the bad apples in the recruitment industry there are also good apples trying to do things better. But not much has been done to help them even if such initiatives go counter to prevailing populist narratives that generalise. All recruiters are tarred with the same brush, and a perfunctory call for more regulatory action is made. How will more regulation help when regulators are a part of the problem? The government needs to use not just sticks, but also carrots.
There is disproportionate coverage in the Nepali media, social media and public discourse of negative migration stories. That in itself is a topic worth studying, as it affects our attitude towards emigration.
Foreign employment has allowed scores of migrant workers to overcome odds stacked against them, but perhaps not in newsworthy ways. A story of a sting operation will get much more media attention and readership than profiles of workers who went to the Gulf and came back with savings, skills and with a network of contacts.
Foreign employment has its faults but it has also changed the lives of workers like Hom, Krishna and Suresh who have been featured in the Diaspora Diaries series in Nepali Times in the past two years. Many of those who are profiled started with nothing, they charted out their own futures thanks to foreign employment.
The discourse in the Nepali public sphere victimises migrant workers even when it is not needed. Case in point: when Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf rallied to send oxygen cylinders home during the Covid pandemic, the media and the social web were full of stories about ‘poor migrant workers who skipped their meals to send oxygen to Nepal’.
Nepali workers abroad themselves were not happy with such exaggerated framing of their collective effort. It is possible to acknowledge the immense contribution migrant workers make or push for labour reforms without always portraying them as helpless sufferers.
It may be time for Nepali journalists, researchers and commentators to also step back and assess how such coverage affects the way society regards emigration, and how this impacts on migration governance.
This is even more important for the way we see female migrant workers who are primarily portrayed as being abused or exploited, referred to as powerless चेली by journalists and in social media posts. The media obsession with the negative, sensational and out of the ordinary feeds such stereotyped coverage and results in the government imposing restrictions like the partial or blanket bans on Nepali women going abroad for domestic work. Women just bypassed the ban, crossing the border into India to fly to the Gulf, increasing their risk of being trafficked, exploited or abused.
The RSP has emphasised that it will henceforth give Nepalis good reasons to stay in their own country and, for those already abroad, to return. But it should also provide migrant workers good reasons to leave. The party and the government it is a member of should not just help us imagine a society in which Nepalis are not forced to migrate, but also one in which Nepalis can better their quality of life no matter the location.
The RSP should therefore refrain from using sentences like ‘स्वदेशमा पर्याप्त मात्रामा रोजगारी सिर्जना हुन नसकुन्जेल वैदेशिक राजगारीलाई सुरक्षित र मर्यादित बनाइने छ’ (We will strive to make foreign employment safe and secure until we find ways to create enough jobs at home). This gives the impression that there is a certain date in future until which time Nepalis will still need foreign employment.
Nepal needs to create jobs at home, no doubt about it, but harnessing the immense potential of foreign labour migration in future should also be a priority. These two requisites do not have to be mutually exclusive. And we have to take these nuances into account to ensure that overseas opportunities are more inclusive, and prevent potential opportunities from being squandered.
The usual portrayal in the media is of migrant workers lining up at Kathmandu airport, and the reports urge commitment on creating jobs at home and returnee reintegration. But the press seldom analyses if overseas jobs are accessible to all Nepalis who need work.
For example, most people from far western Nepal migrate to India, very few go overseas. Why are there barriers for strivers there? Why cannot those communities also benefit from the relatively better earnings, exposure and networks beyond India?
Nepalis from remote areas without strong networks should also have equitable access to ethical recruitment to jobs in West Asia, or seasonal jobs like picking apples in the UK. Nepalis who work on farms in England save as much as Rs1.2 million in a single season.
Whether it is less known or at least, less talked about, there is also often a risk of losing good opportunities because of malpractices in the sector or because of government complacency.
After recent media exposure about exploitation of Nepali migrant workers, employers are now reportedly reluctant to hire Nepalis despite worker shortages, and continued recruitment drives from other countries on the same terms.
As we have been saying in this paper, malpractices in recruitment obviously need to be exposed, and perpetrators punished. But follow up corrective action is also needed so the consequence is not lost job opportunities. Otherwise, activism or regulatory interventions can result in migrant workers being deprived of the benefits of overseas employment.
One example of this is the lost opportunity in the Qatar Police in 2021. These were jobs with high salaries and pension benefits. Media reports exposed that workers were being charged exorbitantly for these jobs due to governance failure.
A Qatar police applicant who had completed most of the paperwork and aced the interview, but was disqualified told us: “I did not get to go. Am I better off here without that job? Surely not. I am earning a tenth of the salary I could have earned in the Qatar Police. By now I would have already paid back the loans I would have taken to pay the recruitment costs, and started saving.”
It is criminal to cheat migrant workers. But it is also criminal for migrant workers to lose potentially transformative jobs because of vested interests, especially when there are few job alternatives back home.
The RSP’s domestic employment agenda is praiseworthy and much needed in Nepal to create these alternatives. But these recent examples show that recruitment malpractices without corrective actions can also be costly for workers. Even without job creation at home, a Nepali worker is unlikely to earn up to Rs300,000 a month as they would have done with Qatar Police.
Plenty of other overseas job opportunities are also squandered due to government complacency. For example, there is a Japan government agreement that was signed in 2019 but has not been implemented. The deal built on a Government (Nepal) to Business (Japan) model is stalled despite Nepal being the second country to sign such an agreement.
This is costly for many workers, including the hundreds who have taken Japanese language classes. Reviving such models should be prioritised because in cases like Japan’s SSW (Specified Skilled Worker) and Korea’s EPS (Employment Permit System), these schemes are the only legal pathways for workers to access these markets.
The Labour Ministry under the new minister must emphasise innovative, practical interventions that will address or prevent malpractices while also allowing workers to benefit from what the world has to offer.
An industry that deals with human aspirations, vested interests and easy profiting is going to be difficult, especially in the present Nepali context. But the labour ministerial portfolio has great potential for a willing and creative leadership, which the public expects from RSP.
The party will be held at much higher standards by the public. Tangible changes in migrant governance can make the RSP politically even more popular — just as Rabi Lamichhane himself was propelled to stardom with his activist tv show.
Most of Minister Aryal’s predecessors in the Ministry of Labour have accomplished precious little. Those who tried to implement reforms were punished. But if done right, migration can be a powerful tool to transform the lives of common Nepalis and their families. For Aryal, this is both a test and a chance to pass, where others have failed.
Some wins are much easier and could score RSP early brownie points. Being digitally connected to migrant workers in a way that they feel the government’s presence and get support if needed will can be a big win. After all, this is what Rabi Lamichhane the journalist got accolades for.
What is needed is a better analysis of the human and financial resources at Nepali embassies and whether they are commensurate with the volume of migrant workers in that country as well as the country’s size so service delivery to workers there can improve.
They must also leverage technology to stay connected to workers as has been done in Malaysia, and use the proximity to host governments, employers and recruitment agencies to their advantage.
Using the Labour-Home Affairs combination, the RSP can actually hold migrant abusers to account and send a positive message. But good recruiters and employers are also important partners whose engagement is necessary to do emigration better.
The Free Visa Free Ticket scheme failed, and needs to be revised. The demand verification process for jobs also needs an overhaul as employers in host countries complain that it takes much longer to source workers from Nepal than from other countries like the Philippines and India.
Progress with the reintegration program for returnees has been slow and needs to be urgently enforced. Allowing workers to contribute to social security, set to begin in March, and to invest in productive sectors are important and will require proactive follow-up by the government.
The RSP must also look into sorry state of Nepal’s labour diplomacy. These should not be just junkets for ministers, but a chance to explore new opportunities for Nepali workers and raise those issues forcefully with host governments. It is incongruous that Nepal still does not have labour agreements with major destination countries like Saudi Arabia, even while existing agreements with the UAE, Japan and Malaysia are not properly implemented.
The RSP can help set standards on implementation of these non-binding labour agreements that have so far been squandered. These could lend themselves to important joint action with host country governments on skills partnerships, sector specific agreements, access to justice, social security and to jointly get at the heart of issues like worker deaths.
Even after years of watching families receiving the remains of their loved ones, no progress has been made in investigations of these deaths. “सुत्दासुत्दै मर्यो” has become the colloquial Nepali term for sudden death syndrome.
Irregular and infrequent Joint Working Group meetings are not enough for any meaningful change. Frequent correspondence and much more proactive follow-up are needed with labour counterparts in host countries. In this day and age, there is no excuse for not doing that.
Labour diplomacy should also entail engaging with the bilateral donors in Nepal itself who represent existing and emerging destination countries such as KOICA, JICA and UKAid to see how those corridors can be strengthened for aspirants, current and returnee workers.
KOICA has recently stepped up to contribute to the integration of EPS workers who have returned to Nepal from Korea. The embassies of Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia should be lobbied to follow suit. After all, Nepalis are helping to literally transform their deserts into liveable cities and organise global events. They can also invest in joint skills, language and information training so workers are better prepared.
The RSP has its work cut out. There is a lot to be done, and a lot that can be done. The real test begins now. The RSP can prove that it is indeed a party for the people by taking the practical route focused on results, not be sidetracked by populism and implement bold initiatives, including unpopular ones.