For Nepal’s migrant workers, good news in small bites

On International Migrants Day, time to reflect on the gains and challenges ahead


Migration is often portrayed as a doom and gloom story of desperation, exploitation and abuse. The only positive stories are about migrants-turned-millionaires, or returnees who started commercial farming.

What rarely gets attention is the incremental improvement in the lives of workers. An average migrant worker is neither stranded, nor a millionaire -- usually it is the story of someone earning enough overseas to build a concrete house or afford better education for the children.

We also expect policies on migration to be uprooted overnight, and entrenched business practices cleaned up. But change is rarely so dramatic, it is mostly incremental, which is perhaps why it does not grab public attention. On International Migrants Day on 18 December, we must reflect on these individual stories of small successes.

"Salaam Alaikum, Bhai," says Ramesh Thapa on IMO to a Kerala person he made friends with while working for five years in a department store in Saudi Arabia. The two recall their time there, and update each other about their lives. Ramesh is trying to run a fancy clothing shop in Kathmandu.

His life has not dramatically changed, nor is it without struggles, but he credits his time in Saudi Arabia for betterment in life – greater level of confidence, a stronger work ethic, a business acumen, and with what he saved he could start something on his own back home.

There are also small changes happening at the policy level: migrant workers can now renew paperwork at the provincial level labour office, saving them time and money. Till recently, a family that lost a member working abroad had to come to Kathmandu to access survival benefits from the Foreign Employment Board. Now, these application can be done through local governments and received through individual bank accounts, saving them expensive travel to Kathmandu.

Bilaterally, between 2008 and 2017, there were no agreements signed by the Nepal Government. But in the past two years Nepal has signed or renegotiated labour agreements with Jordan, MalaysiaJapan, UAE and Mauritius, including provisions for zero cost recruitment and equality of treatment. Many of these agreements include specific clauses like requiring a migrant worker to be received at the airport within six hours of arrival, or allowing workers to return home for personal emergencies regardless of whether or not they have accrued holidays.

To be sure, the some of these provisions are challenging to implement on a large scale, and have not gone into full effect yet. A lot more needs to be done by the government to ensure that the provisions make a tangible impact. There are vested interests at play, receiving countries have lax laws for outsiders, workers have unequal bargaining power, and those who profit from workers have political protection.

The Department of Foreign Employment's efforts to ramp up unannounced investigation against recruitment agencies which are overcharging workers, or increasing intra-agency coordination with the Police and Department of Immigration are promising. Yet, to expect overnight change in current recruitment or employment practices would be unrealistic, as was seen in the attempt to reduce the cost burden on Malaysia-bound workers.

The ban on domestic workers has been ineffective and takes away agency from aspirants. This means stealing from a prospective worker her dreams of taking better care of her children or compelling her to use an unauthorised channel if she is desperate enough. Nepal has yet to find a champion who can uproot this well intentioned, but ineffective policy.

However, it is also time to acknowledge that we have come a long way. The challenges of the last decades was to bring the topic of migrant workers into the spotlight, and the success so far has been noteworthy as evidenced by the Global Compact for Migration. The challenges of the next decades will be to achieve the principles embodied in these documents.

Nepal has a lot working in its favour. Most of its destination countries have endorsed the Global Compact, and there is a common position as we advocate better treatment of workers. Countries are increasingly adopting mandatory supply chain due diligence laws that increase the pressure to ensure worker rights are respected.

Furthermore, as many destination countries are facing the brunt of demographic pressure and severe worker shortage, it has forced countries to reconsider their policies on foreign worker management. There is a lot that can be done, and needs to be done, but the global climate is in favour of workers, and that in itself is worth celebrating on December 18.

Upasana Khadka


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