Long wait over, Nepalis return to Korea

Aakash KC finally flew to Korea on 13 December to rejoin his job after being stranded in Nepal for two years. Photo: AAKASH KC

When Aakash KC flew to Kathmandu from Seoul in February 2020, he was looking forward to a three-month break in Nepal from his job in South Korea. 

Little did he know that he would be stranded for almost two agonising years in Nepal due to the pandemic. KC finally flew back to Seoul on Monday after months of uncertainty because of confusing information on Covid, flip-flopping rules. 

“As per Korean law, I had to come to Nepal for three months before resuming with same employer for another five years,” KC said as he prepared to leave. 

KC is part of the much-coveted Employment Permit Scheme (EPS), a government-to-government partnership between Nepal and Korea to supply workers, and is luckier than most other Nepali migrants because he had an employer who waited to have him back. 

KC had to renew his Certificate for Confirmation of Visa Issuance (CCVI) multiple times with help from his Korean employer. He said: “I used to feel anxious when co-workers from Sri Lanka had returned to their jobs in Korea whereas my future was uncertain.” 

KC’s employer was not just patient, he even sent him financial help during the early months of the pandemic. It is a testament to the hard work and trust that Nepali workers like KC have built with their Korean employers that they are willing to do that. 

KC did not look for any other options during the past two years, although he was tempted to prepare for Nepal’s civil service exams. He has retained his language skills, and earlier this week was excited about returning to Korea. 

To be sure, not everyone is as lucky as KC. Sunita Gurung worked on a farm in Korea, and received her CCVI for continued employment. But her employer cancelled because the process dragged on for too long, leaving her heartbroken and helpless. 

“I understand why he did that,” Gurung said. “How long can an employer wait when I could not confirm when I could return?” 

For over 10,000 other Nepalis who passed the competitive Korean language and skills exams, the pandemic has been a roller coaster ride. They were too far along the process to let go of lucrative job opportunities in Korea that guarantees high wages and a secure future. 

Nepali workers boarding a Korean Air flight in Kathmandu this week after being stuck for nearly two years. Korea is opening up cautiously to see if there is another Covid surge. Photo: AAKASH KC

The workers saw the Gulf and Malaysia opening up after the lockdowns, and could not understand why Korea was still closed. Some workers were under pressure from their families to take up whatever overseas job was available. 

“When my family saw others from the community headed to Gulf, they asked why I could not do the same. They don’t understand,” said one worker. 

All the uncertainty and false alarms over the past year and a half has taken a toll on the mental health of aspirants for Korea. The lack of clear information also means confusion about whether the delay was due to Covid-19 restrictions in Nepal or Korea, vaccine status, or the result of insufficient diplomatic lobbying by the Nepal government.

It has not helped that for almost three years, there has not been a Nepali ambassador in Seoul. Junior embassy staff do not have the same access and influence as an ambassador, and the country’s labour diplomacy has suffered as a result.

“We knew it was due to public health concerns and the Korea government was using similar criteria to all EPS partner countries to assess whether to allow workers or not, but our government was also not being proactive,” said Askash KC who took to the streets earlier this year to put pressure on the Nepal government to lobby with the Koreans. 

Trilok Pant finally flew to Korea in October after waiting for nearly two years and is back at his job. "Work has started in full swing," he says. Photo: TRILOK PANT

The EPS Struggle Committee met government officials, including all five labour ministers in the past two years. A running joke within the Struggle Committee was that one labour minister who lasted only a few days in office earlier this year asked the members who had gone to appeal to him: “What is EPS?”

The South Koreans had set three criteria for the corridors to resume: the presence of direct, regular flights to Incheon, all migrants buy Covid-19 insurance, and workers pay for ten-day quarantines on arrival in Korea. All these criteria were met, and despite the added cost to the workers, Nepalis finally started flying to Korea in October. 

Trilok Pant was among the first lot that went to Korea in October after spending 22 months here. “There was so much excitement among the 48 Nepalis who went on the first flight,” he said on the phone from Korea. “Work has started in full swing now.”

Like KC, Pant was also lucky to have a kind employer who sent him money during the pandemic, and waited for him as he renewed his CCVI four times because it only had six-month validity. 

“On my first day out of quarantine, he took us out for dinner,” Pant recalled. “It was a happy reunion.”

Trilok Pant with his co-workers, including Nepalis, in Korea pre-pandemic. Photo: TRILOK PANT

In the 22 months that he was stranded in Nepal, Pant did not do any work because of the uncertainty about Korea. But Korean employers, too, have faced problems because their workers could not get back. Nepalis mostly are on jobs that locals will not do, especially not for the salaries for migrant workers.

“Nepalis have a reputation for hard work and honesty, which worked to our advantage this time as our employers waited for us patiently amid all the uncertainty and inconvenience,” Pant added.

For now, only a small proportion of those waiting have been able to rejoin jobs, and the Koreans appear to opening up cautiously to see if there is a Covid surge. Only if all goes well in the coming months will more workers be let in. And there are thousands of Nepalis waiting to fly out.