Nepal and Malaysia rewrite rules for migrant labour

Betty Hasan, Undersecretary of Policy Division at the Ministry of Human Resources of Malaysia with Ram Prasad Ghimire, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security of Nepal after signing the agreement last week in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: MINISTRY OF LABOUR EMPLOYMENT AND SOCIAL SECURITY

In what could be a major step forward in safeguarding the welfare of migrant labour, Nepal and Malaysia have rewritten the rules for work contracts.

After a major crossborder investigation by this newspaper, Himal Khabarpatrika and Malaysiakini last year that exposed collusion between corrupt Nepali and Malaysian officials and private companies to charge workers exorbitant fees, Minister of Labour Gokarna Bista stopped Nepalis from going to Malaysia for work in May 2018.

There are about 400,000 Nepalis working in Malaysian palm and rubber plantations, factories and service industries. The investigation revealed powerful Malaysian businesses with political protection in the Barisan Nasional coalition of former Prime Minister Najib Razak worked with influential politicians, bureaucrats and middlemen in Kathmandu to cheat Nepali workers.

The Malaysian government, private companies and their Nepali affiliates took more than Rs5 billion (US$ 450 million) from over 600,000 Nepali workers between September 2013 and April 2018, the investigation showed. This did not include recruiters’ fees and plane tickets the workers also had to pay.

After that expose, Minister Bista signed a landmark MoU with his counterpart, Malaysian Minister for Human Resources M Kulasegeran, in 2018. The agreement required employers to pay for visa fees and air tickets of Nepali workers, who will now be guaranteed salary payments the first week of every month. However, it was not until the technical details were worked out by a Joint Working Committee in Kuala Lumpur last week that the door has opened for Nepali workers to resume working in Malaysia.

The major sticking point last week was Nepal’s demand to increase the 37 institutions the Malaysians had recognised for medical tests for workers to 122 all over the country. The Malaysians will send a team to audit the additional facilities in November. During the negotiations, it was also agreed that Nepali security guards would also get the same deal – a point that had stalled previous talks.

“Our overall migration governance effort is to reduce the unnecessary burden on migrant workers while providing a level playing field for all private stakeholders,” explained Joint Secretary Ram Prasad Ghimire of the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security. “We wanted to decentralise medical tests to make it more convenient for our workers.”

Ghimire, who led the second Joint Working Group Meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week said the flow of Nepali workers to Malaysia could now resume.

The Nepali team persuaded the Malaysian side that it was unfair that workers had to spend up to eight months of their two-year contracts just to pay off fees and ticket cost to get to Malaysia. Nepali recruiters will now be paid half-month salary of the workers as finder’s fee by Malaysian employers.

The Malaysia-Nepal agreement has set a precedent for migration related reforms in Nepal and the region, and laid the basis for agreements that Nepal signed recently with the UAE and Mauritius.

Indeed, a writ petition to the Bangladesh Supreme Court against a cartel of 10 recruitment companies sending workers to Malaysia cites the Nepali Times article last year by Ramu Sapkota and Alyaa Alhadjri that exposed collusion between Malaysian and Nepali officials and companies in overcharging workers, and recognises the Nepal government’s efforts to break such syndicates. In its recent verdict, the Court instructed the Bangladesh government to create an inter-ministerial committee to investigate why only those 10 firms were allowed to send workers to Malaysia.

Nepal’s Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security Gokarna Bista told Nepali Times: “There are very few countries with such iron-clad safeguards for workers, and this Nepal-Malaysia agreement could be a model for migrant worker agreement in other countries as well.” (See full interview below)

However, experts say that despite the agreement the real challenge now is to implement the agreement in letter and spirit so that Nepali workers going to Malaysia are not cheated again.

Legacy policies, past practices, deep-rooted vested interests and political pressure from recruiters and private companies involved in the visa and biometrics racket could still render this well-intentioned policy ineffective.

Recruiters who have not been able to overcharge workers going to Malaysia for a year could be waiting to resume cheating to recoup their losses. Nepali workers could also lose out if Malaysian employers do not have to bear the cost of workers from labour-supplying countries like Indonesia or Bangladesh. Nepali workers may be forced to pay fees in order to keep their jobs.

A concerted effort with strong monitoring from both governments will be necessary to implement the MoU, acknowledged Minister Bista, adding: “Ultimately our goal is secure, safe, and exploitation-free quality jobs overseas for our citizens. We are not going to be driven by how many go abroad to work, but how much they earn and how well they are treated.”

“We want Nepali workers to spend less on fees, earn more and be treated well”

Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security Gokarna Bista spoke to Nepali Times about the renegotiated labour agreement with Malaysia, and his other efforts to ensure welfare of Nepali migrant workers. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: How important is last week’s agreement with Malaysia?

Gokarna Bista: Nepali workers were being cheated by middlemen, not only was that unjust, but it made the poor poorer and the rich richer. Both Malaysia and Nepal had seen a change of government, and after I became minister we started negotiations with my Malaysian counterpart, Malaysian Minister of Human Resources M Kulasegaran who was aware of labour rights and the need to safeguard them. We shared a good rapport, and both of us wanted a mutually beneficial arrangement for Nepali workers in Malaysia.

So why did it take so long?

Our MoU was a broad agreement, but the Joint Working Group had to sort out technical details. It was not easy to break the syndicates running medical tests, and we recommended that 122 new test centres to be approved all over the country for transparency and to decentralise testing. We mutually agreed to include security guard category in the agreement which was originally not in the scope of the MOU. They are now sending a team to audit these new centres outside Kathmandu to ensure that they meet their parameters.

How difficult was it to face political pressure in Nepal against the deal? 

We had to work hard to iron out the details. There was a lot of money going to the pockets of middlemen in both countries for levees, visa fees, medical tests. Both sides agreed that it was unfair for the workers to bear these costs. From now on the workers do not have to pay for their roundtrip tickets, visa fees, they will get their salaries by the 7th of every month, they will be paid overtime, have social security benefits, they get tickets to go home every two years, they get paid leave for 15 days if either parent dies, work-related accidents will be compensated, and if workers die employers will bear the cost of the repatriation of their bodies. We have made sure that Nepali recruiters are paid a small fee by the employers of up to half a month salary.

There are very few countries with such iron-clad safeguards for workers, and this sets a precedent for other labour-exporting countries. The Nepal-Malaysia agreement could be a model for migrant worker agreement in other countries as well.

But can this agreement be replicated? 

We have a similar agreement now with the UAE and Mauritius, and are about to sign a labour pact with Oman that will also ensure worker rights. We are in negotiation with Qatar. We are also talking with higher quality labour markets like Germany and Portugal for Nepali workers.

We have signed a deal with Japan for workers in 14 job categories, and the first caregivers will be going this year. They had opened up the worker quotas for only seven countries, but after much lobbying they added Nepal, the only South Asian country.

How about female domestic workers who cannot come home because of the ban?

I spoke to the Parliamentary Committee, and we agreed that it was inhumane and unjust to stop the workers to come home on holidays to be with their families because they were afraid they could not go back to their jobs. It is true that domestic work is risky for Nepali women but I argued that current domestic workers would not go back anyway if their jobs were not satisfactory. But we have to ensure more protection before we allow new female domestic workers to go.

What other reforms are you working on?

We will now allow all seven provincial capitals to renew Labour Permits so migrant workers do not have to travel to Kathmandu to get travel documents. Nepali missions abroad will also be allowed to renew Labour Permits. Ultimately, all documentation will be online. Once Bhairawa and Pokhara airports are built, many workers will not have to come to Kathmandu at all.

Ultimately our goal is secure, safe, and exploitation free quality jobs overseas for our citizens. We are not going to be driven by how many go abroad to work, but how much they earn, and how well they are treated. We want to equip them with the skills so they do not have to do the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs. We also want Nepalis to come back with knowhow so there is technology transfer.

Nepal allows female domestics to come home for Dasain

Ambika is a Nepali domestic worker in Beirut. For four years, she has not been able to go back to Nepal to see her three children. The reason: a Parliamentary Committee’s ban on Nepalis to work as domestics in West Asia because of stories of abuse by employers.

That left thousands of women like Ambika stranded overseas because they feared they would not be allowed to return to their jobs if they went back to Nepal. Some who had to return home for family emergencies had to pay up to Rs200,000 to middlemen to smuggle them back to Lebanon through India.

This week, the Nepal government decided to allow stranded women to come home for the upcoming Dasain festival to see their families, after which they can return to their employers in West Asia. There are an estimated 15,000 Nepali maids in Lebanon, 5,000 in Jordan and more thousands in other Gulf countries. Many continue to go to there by-passing the ban travelling overland to India and flying from there.

Ambika told us on the phone from Beirut that she was thrilled that she could go back, but there have been so many false alarms that she is still cautious.

“We are waiting for a couple of fellow Nepalis we know to go and return back safely. I may not make it to Nepal in time for Dasain,” she said. Stories of Nepali domestic workers who have started receiving labour renewals is floating around in social media, but that is not enough to assuage her fears.

Other women in Lebanon are also taking a wait-and-see approach to let bolder women take the lead and return safely before they decide to go.

“I have not yet told my children I am returning home soon. I do not want to raise their expectations too high,” says Ambika. “Last Dasain also there were rumours of the ban being lifted, and they were so excited. I do not want to disappoint them.”

She is one of the many domestic workers who had been torn between holding on to her job, or holding her children again. Many Nepali domestic workers send money home so their children can afford a good education.

The impact of the ban is especially felt during festivals or personal emergencies such as sickness of family members when domestic workers are torn between saving a job and meeting their loved ones, often for the last time.

“This is too good to be true,” exclaimed Dhana, another domestic worker in Lebanon, who could not go back to Nepal for her father’s funeral.

Now, the ban on domestic workers has been partially lifted for current domestic workers who want to renew their labour approvals to legally return to the same employers. The domestic work sector has been a contentious sector for migrant workers from Nepal. A series of partial and blanket bans have been implemented in this highly regulated sector.

This has had an unintended consequence on current domestic workers who have had a favourable migration experience. The stories of stranded migrants spurred the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security to request the Parliamentary Committee to reconsider the ban on current domestic workers. (See interview)

“I have been home only once in nine years,” says Sundari, another domestic worker in Lebanon. “The last time I was making plans to return home for a two-month vacation, we heard about the ban. I was crushed because I had already started dreaming of being with my family.”

Sundari hopes it will not happen again, and this winter she can really go home. She is grateful to the government and everyone who lobbied to have the ban lifted.

She laughs on the phone: “Better late than never.”

It is uncertain when and if the larger ban on new domestic workers going to West Asian countries will also be lifted. But for now, this Dasain will finally see thousands of reunions in families across Nepal.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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