New year challenge to new government

The year end coincides with Nepal getting a strange new government that is an amalgam of right and left, monarchist and republican, secularist and pro-Hindu state, those who fought for federalism and against it.

Still, let us hope that in 2023 they can improve health and education, work on jobs at home and on migrant workers welfare. The need for better protection for migrant workers was spotlighted during the World Cup in Qatar this year.

In 2018, K P Oli of the UML launched Nepal’s contributory Social Security Fund (SSF). To say that it was a damp squib would be an understatement.

Now, there is news that the SSF will be extended to migrant workers, effective March 2023. This is a positive and welcome step that (as always) will rest on implementation. This means migrant workers will be eligible for old-age pension, accident benefits, and support for dependent families of the deceased.

Workers have to contribute a minimum of 21.33% of prevailing monthly minimum wage. The extension of the SSF scheme to Nepali workers overseas is important because of the sheer numbers of workers involved, and also the lack of a social safety net for their families.

The government already has a Migrant Welfare Fund (MWF) as well as a mandatory insurance scheme for families of deceased migrant workers with valid labour approvals.

A handful of migrant workers have also got medical expense benefits for grave injuries or illnesses that they returned with. Just in the last fiscal year, 1,243 families got death benefits while 143 received accident benefits.

Of the total 1,089 fatalities of migrant workers (see graph breakdown) 104 were attributed to cardiac arrest, 427 to ‘diseases’, 171 were ‘natural’ deaths, 248 were ‘others’.

Non-work related fatalities are generally not eligible for compensation for families. But Nepal’s own MWF provides critical support for deaths abroad that are are un-investigated and un-compensated.

But because these are one-time transfers, they do not take into consideration the long-term vulnerability of families even though they might provide some cushion from immediate shock. The SSF could change that since families will be eligible for a lifetime of monthly support.

The lyrics of the popular Nepali song by Hemanta Rana 'चालिस कटेसी रमाउँला’ (Rejoice after 40) brought home the plight of migrant workers who spend the best part of their young lives toiling overseas. What happens to workers after they return is not meaningfully prioritised in government policy.

For many migrant workers, overseas employment is their only formal wage, and the option to be able to contribute to the SSF while they can is important.

Families rely on earnings to meet immediate needs, and there is seldom enough for old-age. Even with formal employment abroad, they are often not a part of contributory social security systems. The only support is the lump-sum end of service benefits overseas migrant workers get.

But with the SSF, contributors can choose between lifetime monthly support after they turn 60 or take a lump-sum amount upon return.

The new government, especially the entrants like the RSP, RPP, Janamat and Unmukti, are under pressure from voters to perform. An effective implementation of the SSF for migrant workers can be truly transformational — not just for the workers but for families right across Nepal.

The outgoing government deserves credit for introducing this much-needed initiative. For millions in Nepal, emigration and the subsequent remittance is the only safety net, and this important initiative, if done right, will ensure that there is at least something for the family (and by extension the nation) to rely on when the remittance inevitably stops.