The Days of International Migration


International Migrants Day on 18 December is a fitting time to take another long hard look at the migrant labour that sustains Nepal’s economy. Remittances from overseas workers make up nearly a quarter of Nepal’s GDP, placing it seventh among countries most dependant on migrants after Tonga, Lebanon, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Honduras and El Salvador.

This economic mainstay was impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Nepalis lost their jobs and were stranded abroad, their repatriation was chaotic, others were trapped in Nepal.

This year, the closed doors have partially re-opened, but migrant workers have to navigate complicated, costly and confusing requirements in Nepal and at their destinations. Despite this, overseas employment is showing signs of recovery. In October-November 55,000 Nepalis took labour approvals, the majority to go to the Gulf countries like Qatar (19,000), Saudi Arabia (17,000) and the UAE (13,500). In the whole of 2020, only 7,797 permits were issued. 

The Gulf dominates the overseas market because Malaysia, which has traditionally been one of the major destinations for Nepali workers, banned incoming foreign workers since March 2020. The Malaysian are taking foreign workers again, mainly in agriculture and manufacturing.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers has predicted a demand of 600,000 migrant workers for domestic production to rebound to pre-pandemic levels next year. Korea bound EPS workers have started flying out in small numbers after being completely closed for the past  almost two years. 

Despite reasons to be optimistic, uncertainties remain. The market is recovering but because of new strains of the virus, there is still a fear that things may unravel again.  

In August, thousands of workers waited all night at Teku Hospital to get their vaccination cards certified. This issue has been largely sorted out, but new variant related restrictions have come up. Some 1,000 Israel-bound caregivers are waiting impatiently because they cannot get booster shots that they need to fly to Tel Aviv. 

Read also:

Rights referees blow whistle on World Cup fouls, Kunda Dixit

Long wait over, Nepalis return to Korea, Nepali Times

Paying lip service to migrant workers is not enough. As we said last year on International Migrants Day in this space, their contribution in keeping this country afloat is too important.  

Since decades, Nepali migrant workers have left, worked and returned quietly on their own – first to India and then further afield. Covid-19 has disrupted that flow by creating administrative hurdles, uncertainty and even curtailed demand. This means they require a lot more support and facilitation to ensure minimum disruption. 

The main hurdle is political apathy. There have been five labour ministers in the past two years ministers in the past two years, and they have set the bar very low for any proactive initiatives. They were either AWOL when workers were stranded, or left immediately after being appointed. When workers had to stand in line for a night and day just for a piece of paper there was no one paying attention. 

While it is too early to judge, the newly appointed Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security Krishna Kumar Shrestha is showing some interest. The government is set to renew the labour agreement with Qatar which was signed in 2005

But past experience has shown that we need proof of the pudding. There is a ritualistic approach to labour agreements: the signing itself is seen as an end and not the beginning for bilateral cooperation. The emphasis needs to be on enforcement of existing agreements and on signing new ones with major destination countries like Saudi Arabia. 

But proactive engagement must not mean unnecessary hurdles for migrants, of which there are plenty. Why the unnecessary delays by Nepal’s embassies in the job demand attestation process without which employers cannot hire workers?  The ban on domestic workers in the name of ‘protection’ has still not been lifted despite public outcry. 

The government was quick to recall ambassadors from key destination countries including those who were performing well, without sending replacements

If you cannot help, at least do not harm should be the motto for Nepal’s policymakers.

Every muddle and mistake affects large numbers of migrants and their families. Case in point is the Qatar police recruitment fiasco because of which 200 high paying jobs for Nepalis went to waste. Such cancellations not only harm migrants and their families but also future job openings.

On the home front, the reintegration program and the Prime Minister's Employment Program back home have been disappointing. Programs for returnees are just announcements with little action.

Qatar will be under the spotlight in 2022 because of the FIFA World Cup in November-December. This marks the end of an era for Nepali workers who were indispensable in Qatar’s construction boom. The World Cup will be personal in a bitter way given the human cost of the game that engaged hundreds of thousands of Nepalis.  

Nepalis were dying in Qatar but Nepalis were also dying to work in Qatar, and therein lies the conundrum. There are both good and bad aspects of migrating to places such as the Gulf that have limited rights for foreign workers, but plenty of jobs.

On the next International Migrants Day on 18 December 2022 is also the finals of the World Cup at the Lusail Stadium in Doha that Nepali workers helped construct. There is a wall at the stadium to honour the migrant workers. Both 18 December and the wall may feel like empty displays of gratitude unless accompanied by concrete action that actually make a difference to the workers they intend to honour.