The Year of Migrant Workers

2020 turned the world upside down, and in Nepal, one of the most dramatic impacts was on the country’s economic mainstay – overseas contract workers who sent home nearly $8 billion during the pandemic.

The year forces us to re-examine long-held assumptions about Nepal’s remittance economy. And on International Migrants Day, Friday 18 December, Nepali Times has a special package of reportage, analysis and commentary on the subject.

When citizens are treated shabbily by a government, their health and education needs are neglected, they have no meaningful employment at home – they will leave. And it may be naïve to expect a state that has created the very conditions for millions of Nepalis to migrate to suddenly be conscious about their welfare. 

Nepal’s past governments have used migration as a safety valve, so millions of unemployed youth do not create political instability at home. The money they send back keeps the economy afloat. Nepal’s remittance-to-GDP equivalence highest in Asia at 28% — much more than Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, or the Philippines, and among the Top 5 globally.

 Yet, it has never been a priority for Nepal’s bureaucrats, political leaders or legislators to ease the process so workers are not fleeced every step of the way and ensure that their work is gainful, dignified and safe. The rare politicians who have tried to address exploitation have been dismissed. Paying lip service to ‘national heroes’ every International Migrants Day is not enough. 

Like it or not, out-migration has been a prominent feature in Nepal’s history and is here to stay. One of them is a man named Hari Sharma, who has featured in previous reports in this paper, and whose story captures the hardships, uncertainties and inevitability of migration.

Hari made an arduous journey to Banke district from Ahmedabad in May when the lockdown forced millions of labourers to head home, many on foot. “It is better to die in my own country,” he told us then, as he trudged to the Nepal border on India’s Shramik train. 

Five months later, he is back in Ahmedabad with the same employer despite the Covid-19 crisis in India. On the phone this week, he asked us rhetorically: “How will my family survive if I don’t migrate?

Migration is inevitable, so we have to manage it better. There is a whole checklist of things to do, and a lot of it begins at home:

- Ensure a clean and transparent process

- Reduce the economic burden of recruitment

- Upscale vocational and pre-departure training

- Eliminate bureaucratic hassles and fees

- Control extortion and corruption every step of the way

- Sign bilateral labour agreements and implement them

- Prompt help by embassies to workers in need

- Soft loans for business development of returnees

- Invest in mass-job creation at home

 All this is not going to happen overnight. Demographic shifts worldwide, salary differences and aspirations of youth are real. Even as Nepal develops, its youth gets better education, the push factors for migration will continue to grow. 

The destination may change from India to Qatar, or Qatar to the UK, but it is all mobility nonetheless. The choice ahead of Nepal is not whether we can curb migration (we cannot) but how we can benefit from this phenomenon while giving the youth attractive economic opportunities back home so that deciding to stay is not an unusual choice.

As 2020 draws to a close, we must also ponder how the pandemic did not just limit outmigration but also prevented Nepalis from coming back home. The inaction has been stunning. The Labour Minister was AWOL. Repatriation flights were a mess, with flip-flopping rules, lack of information for workers in limbo. When flights did resume in July, the government could not decide who should benefit from airfare support – undocumented workers were not eligible for the ticket scheme when they are the ones who needed the help the most. Many Nepali workers overseas did not even bother to register to return, preferring to hold on to the jobs they had, even when wages and hours were not ideal.

Through all this, remittances defied expectations and continued to hold strong. Nepal’s migrant workers contributed directly (by engaging in critical essential work in host countries) or indirectly (by sending remittances to Nepal). International Migrants Day celebrates their sacrifices, but we need to do much more than just appreciate them.