Helping hands for Nepali migrants in distress

Nepali workers stranded by the COVID-19 flight ban returning from the UAE last week. Photo: GOVINDA REGMI

There should be a simple rule of thumb to decide whether interventions in Nepal’s migration sector are useful: does it help the worker?

However, the gap between policies and the ground reality is so wide that the most vulnerable migrants often fall between the cracks. Nepal announced free-visa-free-ticket policy, but workers still pay exorbitant amounts to get jobs. Domestic work was banned, but workers bypass it.

The consequences of these policy failures are felt especially strongly by migrants during the crisis. Nepali migrant workers like Miya paid $3,450 for a job in the UAE. Laxmi travelled overland through India to Kuwait to circumvent the ban on domestic work.

The lapses in the repatriation of workers have been well-documented. There are many players engaged in promoting worker welfare, and it is when there is a crisis like COVID-19 that society needs to step up to help fellow-Nepalis in need.  

If a repatriated worker is thrown out of a bus taking female returnees from Kuwait home from a quarantine centre because she had no money, then it means the system is not working, and there are too many lapses.

A recent project initiated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has taken a more practical approach towards addressing problems of repatriation. It has involved  destination countries where migrants are stranded and embassies are overwhelmed, and in their management upon arrival. It engages unconventional partners like Nepal’s embassies abroad and the Non-Resident Nepalese Associations (NRNA).

The project supports Nepal’s embassies by adding volunteer staff, extending their reach outside the capital by setting up outreach camps in major migrant hotspots, providing paralegal support by adding legal staff to facilitate mediation with employers or providing short-term shelter support to those displaced.

At the Nepal end, the project provides transfer and transportation to ensure more humane reception of returnees at the holding centres and their transportation to home districts. The initiative pushes more unconventional interventions at ground level among Nepali workers stranded in the major destination countries, and can be replicated elsewhere as well. 

Nepal struggles to make repatriation easier, Nepali Times

The ILO’s Nepal Country Director Richard Howard spoke to Upasana Khadka at Nepali Times about the overall situation of migrant workers during the pandemic.

Nepali Times: What is so unique about this project?

Richard Howard: This is not a new project, but the key thing about our approach with support from the Swiss government was to help Nepali missions abroad provide for migrant workers during normal times. There are lessons to learn from countries like Sri Lanka and Philippines on their one-country-team approach to support migrants in the destination country. And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even before the pandemic, has been keen on moving in that direction to strengthen Nepal’s missions abroad. It takes time to bring such changes, especially in countries where the volume of workers is high. When COVID-19 came about, it showed more than ever the need to have services in place. We often realise what we don’t have during a crisis, and this pushed us to think about what we could do this year to help the missions respond better to the needs of the large share of vulnerable migrants.

What about countries where Nepal does not have embassies?

We had to start where the numbers are the biggest and we may have to make adjustments as we go along such as add countries, but we need to move quickly. There are also other countries with stranded migrants even if the numbers are smaller and without missions where you can tweak the model in response to the context and work with different types of partners there.

Some migrants cannot afford tickets, and even if the Foreign Employer Welfare Fund (FEWF) was mobilised it would exclude those without valid labour approvals who are the most vulnerable. Should we think beyond the Fund?

The government has an obligation to support all workers regardless of their legal status. Many left irregularly because of the bans in place and they did not have alternate options domestically, and now they are stuck. FEWF might be a tough sell because it is based on contributions by workers that have paid into it.  All of us have an obligation to help all workers, both the government and the big international donors. The latter would also be willing to support if the government moved in that direction. It also points to the need to reconsider policies like the ban that have made workers more vulnerable even if they were imposed to protect them.

What about the role of the private sector? Their business is impacted negatively, but they also have a history of fleecing workers.

First and foremost, foreign employers have an obligation to workers and destination countries need to ensure that employers are held responsible to play their part. But those industries are also suffering, so it has to be a sharing of the burden between the government and private sector in the destination countries and in Nepal. As for recruiters, we need to recognise that they are a mixed bag, and it is not fair to characterise them in a singular way. They play a vital role and are needed for foreign employment. Even before COVID-19, they were already facing a crunch as outflow was declining. COVID-19 has reduced their revenue virtually to nothing so at this point, we do need to be realistic about what we can get from them. But this is a good time to think about reform of the industry in a way that allows them to stay in business, but also holds them accountable. And they have to be on the table as we come up with solutions.  

What about redeployment programs in the destination country for migrants who are displaced but want to stay on?

In countries with a surplus of labour and a demand for workers, they could look at redeployment programs in a large way to channel migrants to opportunities, and that is the strategic thing to do by the labour ministry and the technical/vocational industries in the country. But the skill-sets of migrants needs to be considered, and transitions are easily possible in some cases and maybe not in others. Even if workers come to Nepal, it is also the obligation of the government here to help train workers to meet the demands of the global market as well because migration is not going to go away. Creating 0.5-1 million jobs domestically takes long term structural changes that will take years, so migration should continue to be a part of the strategy. We should not inhibit migration, but it has to be done in industries considered safe with the right kind of protection and we need to be creative in identifying new opportunities. The adjustments that need to be made in the recruitment process such as pre-departure training  and medical tests are nominal changes. But it has to be done on a case by case basis depending on the situation of the destination country. We are all in unknown territory now, and it is hard to know what is coming. But the larger lesson is that social protection needs to be provided to migrant workers, both while working overseas and after their return- this should be built into BLAs and really implemented.

Bilateral, regional and global platforms exist on migration but what has their role been in the context of the pandemic? Do we need to rethink them?

Bilateral, regional and global in terms of practical implementation on what it means for migrants are distant from their realities. They are necessary, but they are very much just at the starting point, and if we cannot deliver on the practical protection, we need to be more critical. Among the three, bilateral labour agreements are supposed to be the most practical, but they are not being implemented. We have to draw on lessons from countries like Philippines that have focused on the implementation of the agreements. It is possible, but it takes a lot of communication and follow up from governments and other related institutions. Regional frameworks have been a little disappointing during the crisis but we also need to look inwards to our own organisations including ILO and ask if we are practical enough. All international standards, frameworks and forums mean nothing if we cannot protect workers in a crisis. And we need to do better at being quick, practical and responsive -- not just during the crisis, but every day after this. If we look at the history of ILO and history of standards over the decades and question whether the standards we set are making an impact, we see progress and impact because there are minimum wages in most countries, and workers are benefiting from measures like pensions and maternity insurance that are necessary, but we also need an adaptive side to us that is also more responsive and practical. 

Read also: Returnees need help to go back to farming, Rastraraj Bhandari and Sangam Paudel

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