Mirage of migrant rights

Another year, yet another May Day. As Nepal emerges from the ravages of the pandemic and the economic crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the role of remittances in supporting families and indeed the country’s economy is more vital than ever. 

On this year’s May 1 Labour Day, Nepalis are also preparing to vote in local elections. But not the country’s estimated 4 million workers abroad who prop up the economy. They are still not allowed to exercise their Constitutional right to vote, even after the Supreme Court ordered the government in 2018 to make arrangements to facilitate absentee ballots.

Political leaders have ignored that ruling. Nepal’s main parties have made such a mess of governance that they sense (probably correctly) that the diaspora vote will be anti-incumbent.

And, as Tilu Sharma argues from Qatar, Nepal’s migrant workers know only too well the hurdles the government puts on their path, while using the money they send home to keep the national economy afloat. 

The fight to be heard is even more challenging abroad where our workers, despite filling jobs not wanted by locals, in what are known as the ‘D3’ (Difficult, Dangerous, Dirty) are treated as invisibles.

In this Labour Day Special edition, Madhusudhan Ojha walks us through the struggle of the Migrant Worker Union in Korea to gain legitimacy. The pioneers of that labour movement included Nepalis who risked deportation and detention for better rights in a foreign land. Ojha’s experience shows the importance of collective bargaining, while also demonstrating how it is an ongoing and often thankless process with some of their demands the same as what it was decades ago.

If this is the situation in one of the better-run bilateral migration programs, it is not difficult to imagine how Nepali workers are treated in other destinations like Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, or India. In most of these places, migrant workers are banned from unionising.

UAE resident and journalist Umakanta Pandey is currently in detention, not for criticising the Emirati government but on a complaint by the Nepal Embassy for posting about visit visa misuse that put workers at risk. When a Nepali citizen is serving time in the UAE at the request of a Nepali state organ, how can we expect Singha Darbar to be more vigilant about protection of our overseas workers?

It is a tragic irony that while Nepal prepares for local elections, not only are our overseas workers not allowed to vote, but their sacrifices get barely a mention. In fact, the government is only worried about how falling remittances have further reduced Nepal’s forex reserves. Politicians are even calling on migrants to send money through legal channels to help out in this time of crisis.

Then there is the much-touted Prime Minister’s Employment Program which has failed to deliver as promised. The lesson here is to empower local governments for decision-making, provide them with resources and promote seamless coordination with the federal government.

A more honest way to mark Labour Day would be to under-promise and over-deliver, have more work and less talk. But with parties on the campaign trail, all we hear is lofty talk and more empty promises.

May Day coverage this week and over the last 21 years in this paper have time and again demonstrated the role of the ‘remittance senders’. One such story is that of Prakash Gurung who worked as a safety adviser at an off-shore oil rig in Qatar and has returned. His is a story of wasted potential, wasted opportunities.

Gurung’s story is an example of how Nepalis can also fill high-paying jobs in the Gulf, but have been largely unable to do so. Despite having workplace safety monitoring skills and experience that would be critical for our economy, the returnee has turned to agriculture in frustration.

Migrant workers like Tilu Sharma, Madhusudhan Ojha and Prakash Gurung in this edition of Nepali Times have called out state complacency and neglect. And elections this year are not likely to address these issues faced by migrant, especially since they cannot even vote.

Remittance inflows decreased 1.7% to Rs631.19 billion, and 3% to $5.28 billion in the eight month review period ending mid-March. The number of Nepalis taking labour approval including renewals bounced back to 406,162 in the same period.

Nepali migrant workers will continue to chart their own paths, test their luck overseas and silently contribute to the economy with the state doing nothing more than putting hurdles every step of the way before they leave, while they are abroad, and once they return.

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