Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

It may sound incongruous writing about labour and employment when Covid-19 is surging across the country.

But since Saturday is May Day, let us look at labour and migration. The unmet need to generate enough jobs for the 500,000 young Nepalis who enter the labour market every year, and the state’s responsibility in facilitating safe and affordable migration for those who want to work abroad.

The Constitution says: ‘The State shall pursue a policy of ensuring the right to work of the labor force, which remains as the major social and economic strength of the country, by providing them with employment and raising their participation in the management of enterprises, while at the same time protecting their rights and interests.’

Employment and migration are directly linked to the pandemic, and as parts of the country go back into lockdown again, we have seen that the crisis will continue to have a direct impact on jobs, earnings and remittances in coming years.

The state has the unenviable task of balancing lives with livelihoods. Compared to the first wave, this one is a tsunami, and we witness in India the kind of havoc it can wreak. For the poorest Nepalis without savings and social safety nets, the pandemic is as much an economic crisis as a health emergency.

Even pre-pandemic, the lives of millions of Nepalis was precarious given the uncertainties of daily wages, and the inadequacy of subsistence agriculture.

This is where the Prime Minister’s Employment Program (PMEP) that was launched with much fanfare in February 2019 held much promise. It planned a nationwide social protection program aimed at the poorest and jobless, guaranteeing them 100 days of employment annually. Those who registered but did not get jobs were to be provided unemployment allowance for 50 days a year.

Last year’s budget promised jobs for 200,000 most vulnerable Nepalis affected by the lockdowns under this scheme.

As we report, the outcome is discouraging: of the 750,000 who registered as jobless, only a little over 10% got jobs—not for 100 days, but an average of 11.

The lesson is clear: local governments need to be empowered for decision-making and well-resourced and coordinate seamlessly with the federal government. Not learning this will lead to endemic complacency.

Everyone agrees that the PMEP is a great idea. But as usual, the proof of the pudding in Nepal is always in the eating. Proper implementation could have helped the poorest Nepalis during this crisis. It is a missed opportunity.

The PMEP was designed as a safety net for the poorest. During the Covid-19 crisis it is even more important to provide jobs for  families who need the income the most.

A highly informal workforce also means a highly disposable workforce without social safety nets. Due to the drop in tourism, transport and retail trade, Nepal’s service sector growth is at an 18 year low. Two out of every five workers lost their jobs with women, the young workers most affected.

Internal migration has also been hit by lockdowns, and we are once more seeing an exodus of Nepalis to their districts. Foreign employment is recovering, but slowly. Nepali workers are fleeing a devastating Covid-19 surge in India. The impact will be felt by the poorest Nepalis, especially from western Nepal who opt for seasonal work.

The PMEP targets only the most vulnerable segment of the labour market. There are skilled, higher income groups who have also lost jobs.

The labour market is under enormous pressure to absorb Nepalis who have been displaced from jobs, who would have migrated, the returnees, and new entrants. Many migrants see their own lifetime as solely that of sacrifice for their children, spending two to three decades in the Gulf just so the generation after them can break out of the cycle they have been stuck in.

When parents are not able to work, children’s education suffers, and it is impacted by new school closures. Online education is not an option for the poorest.

The upcoming budget, just like last year’s, is sure to include lofty promises about employment priorities. There will again be pledges to mobilise skills of returnees, even though past reintegration programs never even remotely met targets.

A more hopeful and helpful strategy would be to under-promise and over-deliver. That would be the honest way to mark this year’s Labour Day. More work and less talk.