"Nepalis have strong work ethics and honesty"

Nepal’s new budget last week pushes Nepal’s missions overseas to ensure the welfare of the country’s migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nepal’s outgoing ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mahendra Prasad Singh Rajput spoke to Upasana Khadka of Nepali Times on his tenure in one of the most popular destination countries for Nepali migrant workers.

Nepali Times: What are some of your reflections from the last four years of your tenure in Saudi Arabia?

Mahendra Prasad Singh Rajput: Just like other countries in the region, there is the practice of kafala, which means workers are at the mercy of employers. But I have also seen a positive momentum over the years here, especially the recently introduced Labour Reform Initiative which has challenged many aspects of the kafala system by allowing workers to change employers under certain criteria or to leave without an exit permit. We also managed to raise the minimum referral wages of workers to 1,300 Saudi Riyals from 1,000, which had to undergo cabinet approval and was long overdue. 

There were many cases in which we had to help Nepali workers. One Nepali, Prem Bhujel, actually stayed in the embassy shelter for 2.5 years because he was unable to exit the country unless he cleared hospital fees that had racked up to 800,000 Riyal. It was waived after the embassy appealed to the conscience of the hospital chief. Then there was Tanka Bahadur Raskoti who had been incognito as a camel caretaker for 18 years. We located him, coordinated with the sponsor to pay him 50,000 Riyal before he was sent back to Nepal to be reunited with his family. 

There were three death penalty cases that we were able to reverse by closely communicating with the highest authorities in the Labour Ministry and mayors of provinces. A big lesson from all this is that a lot rests on personal relationships with government counterparts and agencies while dealing with individual cases, or common issues faced by Nepalis. Communication opens up avenues for solutions, no matter how complex the case.

A significant event during my tenure was of course the Covid-19, especially the first wave, that overwhelmed us with many panic-stricken Nepalis. As many as 28,000 Nepalis registered to return in government-supported repatriation flights although we had an inkling that many would change their minds about returning eventually. Around 18,000 returned in the government-supported flights. The close cooperation with Nepali community groups in Saudi Arabia during the crisis helped stranded migrants with shelter and food across the country.

The second wave has been a lot calmer, and many are in fact feeling safer to stay on in Saudi both to hold on to their jobs and because the healthcare system is better. At least a weekly Kathmandu flight would help the few workers who are stranded. Fortunately, there is no discrimination here between locals and foreigners when it comes to vaccines. 

Recovery of labour demand for new Nepali hires in Saudi Arabia has also been robust compared to other destination countries. This is encouraging, and also a testimony to the strong reputation Nepalis have built for their work ethics and honesty and the bilateral ties between the two countries. 

What are some of the common challenges faced by Nepali migrants in Saudi Arabia?

When there are hundreds of thousands of workers, there are bound to be problems. Our challenge is to minimise them. A large number of migrants who come to Saudi Arabia are not well oriented to the culture, laws, practices and even their own terms of employment as stated in the contract. They sign whatever they are made to sign. 

While there is a mandatory pre-departure orientation for migrants, I can tell from the receiving end here that workers still lack basic knowledge of life in Saudi Arabia when they arrive. This needs to be urgently addressed. There are many Nepalis in jail because they did not fully comprehend the consequences of dealing with alcohol, or did not have the driving skills despite coming here as drivers which also makes them prone to accidents. 

These issues can be avoided with proper orientation and training. I am not sure where the lapses are in the pre-departure training -- either in the curriculum, duration or the mode of delivery or something else, but this needs to be reevaluated so that it is not just a formality. All workers need not be fluent in Arabic, but even having a basic grasp of some common terminology as part of the pre-departure orientation would help them adjust better. There are also problems with payment of wages that puts workers in a difficult position. 

We have seen that those who work with supply companies are more prone to this because they take a good chunk of the salary paid by the main company the workers are supplied to. To the extent possible, direct employment with employers without going via supply companies needs to be prioritised. 

Despite being a major destination country, Nepal does not have a bilateral labour agreement with Saudi Arabia. Why is that? 

There is already a comprehensive draft labour agreement between the two countries that has undergone multiple iterations but with Covid-19 which took up all our attention, the agreement is yet to be finalised. A bilateral agreement would give us a platform to step on the mutually agreed provisions to advocate for worker protection, whether it is to obtain updated information on all current migrants based in Saudi Arabia, to deal with compensation cases after accidents etc. 

We already rely on the relevant Saudi laws, but that is unilateral and we have not been able to enjoy the privilege of a bilateral agreement where we raise and address issues specific to Nepalis. Formalising the agreement should be a key priority. I would say that it is premature to discuss the deployment of domestic workers unless we sign a comprehensive labour agreement that addresses the vulnerabilities of the sector. 

The general draft is ready, and should be finalised and signed as soon as the situation normalises. Emphasis should also be given to a cooperation agreement in other areas such as trade, investment and education. We have to further strengthen our diplomatic relationship of which labour diplomacy is a part. 

What are the practical challenges, especially when embassies have resource constraints?

Resource constraint is more of a challenge in Saudi Arabia just because of the sheer size of the country (2.15 million sq km) compared to other countries in the region. We also have an estimated 350,000 migrants scattered across the country. Right now, we have one labour counsellor in Riyadh and a labour attaché in Jeddah dealing only with labour issues. This is not sufficient so other embassy staff also spend a lot of their time on migrant welfare. 

Let’s say a worker who is based 1,000 km away needs legal support and representation in the court. Saudi law requires that the case be dealt with in the court that is closest to the worker/employer, which means we need the vehicle and manpower, including legal representatives and interpreters on the ground. 

The cases may require multiple visits. We have had to deal with over 800 cases, and have managed to get workers compensation of a total of Rs320 million, but each case takes time and resources. Cases related to repatriation of bodies of workers and compensation to their families are the most challenging. 

This is in addition to the day-to-day tasks at the embassy. There is also a need to move towards digitisation but that will require more skilled IT professionals in the embassy. While I do need to acknowledge that MoFA in Kathmandu has addressed our budgetary constraints over the years by doubling it from when I first came here, there is a mismatch between available resources and the need. This discrepancy was further amplified during Covid-19 when a lot more Nepalis needed support. 

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