Too many stranded Nepalis, not enough flights

Only one-tenth of estimated 300,000 Nepali workers stranded overseas who want to return home have come back in the past six weeks because of limits on the number of flights at Kathmandu airport.

Even though Nepal has decided to pay for repatriation flights for some of its workers stranded overseas due to the COVID-19 crisis, there are just not enough flights to bring back the estimated 300,000 workers in the Gulf and Malaysia who want to come home.

Only 30,000 Nepali workers have flown back in repatriation flights since 15 June, and even employers willing to pay for charter flights to send laid-off employees home are not getting permission from the airport authority in Kathmandu.

For example, 3,100 stranded Nepali security guards in the UAE have been unemployed for four months. While their employer, Transguard Group, is willing to charter flights to send them home, it has not received permission from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) to do so.

“So far, only 300 employees from the company have been repatriated in government arranged repatriation flights with support from our employer,” said one worker still stranded in UAE. “There are just not enough flights for all of us who want to return.”

The government has a cap on the number of daily repatriation flights because of the limited capacity to test, quarantine and transport workers on arrival at Kathmandu airport. On Tuesday, the Cabinet decided to gradually lift lockdown rules, with regular international flights allowed with limited frequency and destinations from 17 August.

A blunt notice by the UAE company Transguard Group to laid off workers that limited flights to home countries is delaying their repatriation.

Last week, Nepal issued a directive to pay for flying home some categories of Nepali workers stuck overseas using the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund. Even if this directive is implemented, it is not clear how workers will get home if there are not enough flights.

The ‘Repatriation of Stranded Nepali Workers in the Course of Foreign Employment due to COVID-19, 2020’directive was prepared in response to the Supreme Court’s interim order earlier this month to judiciously use the Fund that now has over Rs5.7 billion in the kitty made up of contributions from all Nepalis going overseas for work.

Nepalis with no means of returning to Nepal on their own, and without support from other stakeholders, deportation detainees, and amnesty beneficiaries will be eligible to return with support from the government (see box).

The Nepal government’s directive ‘Repatriation of Stranded Nepali Workers in the Course of Foreign Employment due to COVID-19, 2020’.

“We have set aside Rs750 million to fund repatriation of stranded workers, and we will add to it if necessary,” said Rajan Shrestha of the Foreign Employment Board (FEB), adding that it would not just cover international airfare costs but also domestic transport to home districts.

The directive recognises that displaced workers in their first year of contract are some of the most vulnerable given that they are still struggling to pay recruitment costs associated with their employment, often borrowed informally at back-breaking interest rates.

It tries to hold recruiters and employers who profit from foreign employment accountable. Shrestha explained: “For workers with valid contracts, employers have the primary responsibility towards workers including buying return tickets. The recruiter is also jointly liable. We have to exhaust these options and ensure everyone is playing their part.”

Employers who breach contracts by not assuming responsibility for repatriation of  workersor clearing their salaries and other dues will be barred by the FEB from hiring Nepali workers for the next five years. It is not clear how migrant workers who were charged exorbitant recruitment fees but had to return prematurely will be handled.

As with very thing else in Nepal, the challenge now lies in implementing the directive. It requires embassies and recruitment agencies to be particularly responsive and proactive to help migrants who meet the criteria for repatriation support.

Sujit Shrestha of the Nepal Association of Foreign Agencies (NAFEA) said: "We have a comprehensive Foreign Employment Act that holds all players responsible but a weakness is the lack of clarity when employers go into situations of force majeure invoking a situation like COVID-19.”

He said the directive can be followed if the employer is still operating but has reduced workforce size, but it is not clear what happens when employers use the ‘circumstances beyond their control’ clause.

“The Nepal government also needs to play a more proactive role via diplomatic efforts, especially with countries with which we have signed bilateral labour agreements,” Shrestha added.

A downside is that workers who do not have valid labour approvals, and are some of the most vulnerable during this crisis, will not be able to benefit from this contributory fund. This includes domestic workers who traveled through irregular channels because of the ban, for whom an alternative like the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 Fund could be used.

But there are also others could step in to set up a fund, like Nepal’s development partners and the private sector. Also, recruiters recently contributed Rs3.5 million to the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 Fund which could have been channeled for migrant-specific need if such a basket fund existed.

The directive, if properly implemented, could serve as an example for other migrant-sending countries also facing challenges in repatriating vulnerable workers and have similar Welfare Funds. The pandemic has laid bare Nepal’s gross unpreparedness for emergency support to migrants.

Previous attempts to set up a Rapid Rescue Team in the Ministry of Labour failed while lessons from earlier large-scale repatriations such as from Libya in 2011 are poorly documented and did not serve to inform the repatriation strategy during this pandemic.

Like the Philippines, Nepal also needs a contingency plan for overseas workers and rapid response teams that activate during such periods for evacuation and welfare. The directive could be an important starting point.