Job-seekers now also jab-seekers

Migrant workers, including Nepalis, in Kuwait after being vaccinated. A Nepali worker gets his jab (right). Source: Ram Bahadur Basnet

In February 2020, Nepali migrant worker Min from Sindhupalchok was excited to visit Nepal after completing two years working in Kuwait. More than a year later, he is still here, due to a Covid-19 travel ban by Kuwait.  

He could have returned by taking an indirect route via the UAE since there were no direct flights from Nepal. But since quarantining in the UAE was too costly, he decided to wait for travel restrictions in Kuwait to be lifted. 

“Now it looks like new rules regarding mandatory vaccination in Kuwait will further delay my return,” says Min.

Another worker in Kuwait is Lila from Chitwan. He had spent 15 years there, but has been stuck ever since he came home for a break. Lila’s employer in Kuwait is getting impatient.

Stories of stranded migrants are common, but with new vaccination requirements by destination countries, the situation has only become even more uncertain. 

“From 1 August, Kuwait will allow entry of non-citizens only if they are fully vaccinated by one of the four vaccines: Pfizer BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson,” says Nepal’s ambassador to Kuwait, Durga Bhandari. 

None of these vaccines are currently available in Nepal, and other countries that send workers to the Gulf also face the same problem. 

Saudi Arabia is also set to impose similar vaccination requirements from 1 August. Until then, those who are not vaccinated have to undergo quarantine for a week. 

While Qatar is allowing Nepali passengers with mandatory institutional quarantine, there has been no announcement regarding vaccines yet. Nepal is currently banned by the UAE and Bahrain for public health reasons. 

The UAE has approved Sinopharm, Pfizer, Sputnik V and Oxford-AstraZeneca, and has imposed double vaccination mandate to South Africa, Nigeria and India, which will likely be applied to Nepalis as well once the ban is lifted, according to UAE-based travel entrepreneur Krishna Bhusal. 

As the Gulf countries ramp up their vaccination drives and set ambitious targets for universal vaccination, they have started to require proof of full vaccination for all activities including workplace visits, public events, restaurants and malls. 

Nepal, on the other hand, is bearing the brunt of the global vaccine inequality with a dismal vaccination rate of 2.6%. It is uncertain when outgoing migrants will get their turn, and as they wait, how many will lose lucrative opportunities or have visas or contracts expire. 

“Even without these flight bans and the new vaccination requirements, it has been difficult for workers with expensive quarantine and testing costs,” says labour recruiter Saroj Pokharel. 

It can cost from $800-$2,000 for institutional quarantine in Qatar depending on the standard of facilities, and many employers are reluctant to cover these expenses which get passed down to workers. 

“The only way out is widespread vaccination, but at the rate we are progressing, I do not see the foreign employment sector recovering anytime soon,” Pokharel says.

Quarantine costs are about $1,000 in Saudi Arabia as well. “Employers are required to foot the bill and have to commit in writing in the job demand approval letter that they will bear the costs of quarantine. The Saudi authorities will also notify employers regarding this rule,”  says Nepali Labour Attaché Prem Upadhaya at the Consulate in Jeddah.

However, given that workers are desperate it is likely that they will pay for it covertly, no matter how high the cost, or how inconvenient. 

The rules on quarantine and vaccines do not just involve Nepali workers, and other countries face the same problem.

In response, the Philippines has put its overseas contract workers in the ‘essential’ category alongside health staff which moves them up in the vaccination priority list. 

Bangladesh will prioritise workers heading to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for the Pfizer vaccines that it received as part of the global COVAX initiative. It is set to receive 2 million doses of the Moderna vaccine from the United States through COVAX. The country also has a scheme to reimburse quarantine costs of workers to Saudi Arabia. 

In Pakistan, Saudi-bound expats broke into a vaccination centre in Islamabad after fears that the AstraZaneca vaccines would run out. Prime Minister Imran Khan has asked Saudi Arabia and other countries to accept the WHO-approved Chinese vaccine with which Pakistan is inoculating its population. 

Sri Lanka has also announced free vaccines for those with confirmed overseas jobs, but is also dependent on the Sinopharm Chinese vaccine, which is not accepted by key destination countries. 

In India, many migrant workers are stranded because their vaccine certificates refer to Covishield, and not Oxford AstraZeneca. However, Saudi Arabia finally recognised Covishield as equivalent to AstraZeneca after diplomatic dialogue. Vaccination camps have been set up for outgoing students and workers, although demand far outweighs supply.

In Nepal, however, there is growing frustration with the lack of progress in sourcing vaccines. Says Sujit Shrestha of NAFEA (Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies): “We need a way out because there is demand in these countries for Nepali workers. The government should get vaccines and prioritise outgoing workers, or coordinate with destination countries to provide quarantine and vaccines for workers. For many Nepali families, foreign employment is the only source of income.”

After a few months of slow and uneven recovery of emigration, the second wave impacted both new and current Nepali workers. But even with cases falling and limited flights allowed, there is uncertainty because of the vaccines. 

It is not just about whether Nepal can inoculate outgoing workers soon, but also whether the vaccination provided is accepted by the destination country. 

Saudi Arabia has a demand for 40,000 Nepali workers that are waiting to be filled. In Kuwait, employers are struggling with labour shortages. This is in addition to thousands stranded in Nepal while on holiday like Min and Lila, who are at risk of losing their jobs overseas.

Says Kuwait-based Nepali Ram Bahadur Basnet: “If flights normalise and the issue of vaccinations gets sorted out, Nepalis will be able to find attractive opportunities here.” 

Some names have been changed. Additional reporting by Hom Nath Giri.

Upasana Khadka