The long wait before flight

Overseas migration is picking up slowly after the Covid-19 pandemic, but problems faced by Nepali workers abroad remain intact.

The Nepal Government stopped issuing labour permits from mid-March 2020, and resumed permits for returning workers in June, and for new workers in August. However, there has been a massive drop in the recruitment of workers in the Gulf and Malaysia from South Asia, including Nepal.

Labour permits issued to new Nepali migrants and those returning decreased by 78% and 69% respectively in the first five months of 2020/21 compared to the same previous period. Bangladesh saw a 69% drop and Pakistan witnessed 64% in 2020. 

Monthly Labor Approvals Issued (FY 2020/21); Source: DOFE

However, there has been a gradual increase in the overseas job market. Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) data shows that 14,753 migrants received labour approvals in December-January, marking an increasing trend. Most of the workers last month were headed to the UAE (4,772), Qatar (3,882) and Saudi Arabia (3,763). 

This figure is nowhere comparable to pre-pandemic levels when 52,225 labour permits were issued in January/February 2020, with over 10,000 workers deployed to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Malaysia each. But amid the uncertainty, it has provided some respite to the private sector and those wishing to go abroad for work. 

New Labour Approvals Fell by 78% and Renewals by 69% (First five months of 2019/20 versus 2020/21)

The Nepal mission in Saudi Arabia resumed receiving job requests for approval on 24 January, after a ten-month gap. 

“We have tried to systematise the attestation process by requiring the employers to submit all required documents online,” says Prem Upadhyaya, Labour Attache at the Consul General of Nepal in Jeddah. “After scrutinising the paperwork, employers who have met all requirements are asked to bring the original documents and the attestation is completed the same day.”

Some 700 employers have submitted requests for approval to hire Nepalis. Saudi Arabia’s temporary ban on flights from 20 countries including India and Pakistan may actually mean more jobs opportunities for Nepalis in the near term.

Malaysia, one of the most popular destinations, has barred recruitment of new foreign workers even though employers are facing worker shortages. “There is no official confirmation yet but we are in a wait-and-watch mode and have been told informally that they might ease restrictions from March,” says Sujit Shrestha of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA). 

In the UAE, only semi-government companies have been allowed to issue visas, and not private employers. So, demand, while increasing, is still constrained. 

But Shrestha is optimistic about prospects for Nepali workers in Eastern Europe. There has been an increased in demand for construction workers from Nepal in Romania. In addition, Nepali recruiters are also getting inquiries from Croatia and Bulgaria. 

Parbat Bhandari of Prudential, a recruitment agency, was able to send 72 workers to Qatar to work in a catering company after a long gap. “There isn’t a shortage of demand for workers in Qatar. But the problem is that quarantine costs for workers are around 2500 Riyal ($666) and employers, especially the smaller ones, are not willing to foot the bill,” he says.

DOFE’s data shows that the private sector has been pummelled by the pandemic. Of the 854 recruiters who are licensed for overseas recruitment, only 281 recruiters mobilised workers last month and only 183 in December-January.

On one hand, they are indispensable to revive this sector that is responsible for close to 90% of the migration but on the other malpractice is still high. Both employers and recruiters are looking to cut corners and make up for lost revenue, and with workers desperate for jobs, the sector is ripe for exploitation.

After receiving complaints from workers headed to the UAE who are being charged over Rs125,000 for cleaning job earning only Rs25,000 a month, DOFE raided the agency Greenstar. Upon examining their seized documents, Vision and Value Overseas the recruiter that had mobilised the largest volume of workers in the last three months, and Pass International were also implicated. 

Said DOFE’s Kushal Baral: “Operations of all three companies will be suspended until investigations are completed.”

While overseas jobs are picking up, thousands of Nepalis who passed the exams for South Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS) have been stranded for over a year now.

“I still have hope that I will be able to work in South Korea so I periodically revise my Korean lessons. But it is not easy to stay motivated, especially since I was so close to my departure,” says Kanchanpur-based Rohit Chand. “I was expecting to fly in mid-March last year. I fear that the test results will be considered invalid if this goes on for too long.” 

Nepal has eased flights and worker deployment, but South Korea has barred incoming workers owing to the pandemic. Many employers have started cancelling contracts, which means the thousands of aspirants currently in waiting, will have to start the process all over again.  

Amid the confusion faced by outgoing migrants, remittances from current migrants abroad continue to defy expectations. Nepal Rastra Bank’s macroeconomic and financial report based on five months of data from this fiscal year shows Nepal received Rs416.81 billion ($3.52 billion) in remittance, an increase of 10.9% (6.4% in USD) compared to the same period last fiscal year.

Monthly remittance (in Billions of Rupees). Source: NEPAL RASTRA BANK

A number of factors influence this remittance pattern including migrants drawing on their remaining savings, the move from hundi to formal transfers amid restrictions in travel and illicit activities, the engagement of migrants in essential sectors and the devalued Nepalis rupees against the dollar.

In October, the World Bank revised its estimates from a sharp decline in 2020 followed by a modest recovery in 2021, to a more gradual and prolonged decline in remittances continuing to 2021. 

A recently released report by Oxford Economics and Western Union, however, paints a brighter picture on remittance trends for 2021. It says the economic outlook for advanced economies where a large number of migrants are based, will rebound strongly this year, translating to resilient remittances. The report does caution that despite their positive outlook, uncertainties remain.

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