Why are labour officials transferred frequently?

Former DoFe officials says reform is not easy in a sector where malpractice is rife

DoFE sting team after a successful raid in Dhumbarahi. December 22, 2020.

The Nepal government transfers civil servants regularly, sometimes as routine rotation, but also because of unmet vested interests. The heads of the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE),  which is the regulatory arm of the Labor Ministry, have recently seen short tenures. With its inter-governmental aspect, and the interests of migrant workers and private sector, overseas labour demands a steep learning curve. But once heads of the DoFe get a grasp of the issues they are transferred. 

Momentum is lost. Priorities change. Unfinished businesses remain unfinished. Relationships and trust need to be re-established. Progress is delayed. 

The Director General (DG) of DoFE, Kumar Dahal (pictured below) was recently transferred and spoke to Upasana Khadka at Nepali Times about his 14-month tenure, the sting operations of ‘manpower’ agencies last year that he helped organise which led to the suspension of the licenses of four recruiters found illegally interviewing and charging workers exorbitant fees for jobs in the Qatar Police. This suspension was quickly revoked by Labour Minister Gauri Shankar Chaudhary. 

Excerpts of interview:

Nepali Times: Your transfer was a bit abrupt? 

Kumar Dahal: Look, rotation are part of the bureaucratic process, especially at the senior level. My 14-month tenure is actually considered quite long. The foreign employment sector has many stakeholders with varied interests, which don’t always align. Unwillingness to engage or cooperate in certain activities can make rotations more likely.

Having said that, it would be better if people doing good work are allowed to continue for at least two years to achieve tangible results. Change is not easy in a sector where malpractice like overcharging workers or buying visas are entrenched.

Earlier they were isolated events, but soon they became habit and now, they have become a part of the culture. Our regulatory oversight has been insufficient and the situation has deteriorated over the decades. Even migrants are convinced that paying hefty fees and high interest rates are part of the recruitment culture and they comply, often questioning it only when it is too late. The players are able to make easy money without much effort, time or investment, exploiting the desperation of our youth. Changing this will take time. It depends on bold, visionary leadership, which is lacking.

As a regulatory agency DoFe has to adopt restrictive policies, but you don’t want to deprive migrants of lucrative overseas opportunities. How do you balance the two?

The category of migrants we are dealing with need help navigating the system. They are vulnerable to cheating, so regulations are needed. We first need to accept that most problems faced by migrants begin in Nepal and sometimes, even problems abroad are byproducts of activities here. Every time we received a tip-off from migrants regarding possible malpractice, there has always been something illegal going on which made our sting operations successful. Recruiters have to abide by business ethics, but they often don’t, which makes regulation necessary. Ideally, they should be responsible for workers they send abroad, but that often does not happen.

The private sector is driving this industry, and our role as regulators would be hands-off and minimal if their work was transparent. But it isn’t. Just a few days ago, our inspection of 45 pre-departure orientation training providers showed that 30 were giving out certificates without training. Then there are other types of problematic migration: via individuals, education consultancies or traffickers, or on wrong visas, such as visit visas.

We in government also need to be responsible, which isn’t the case always, either. The question for both the government and the recruiters should be whether the migrant worker is satisfied with the services and protection being afforded. Currently, I am afraid they are not.

We can do better with facilitation support. For starters, we can simplify the approval process of job demands in destination countries and explore opportunities in markets like Europe where there is a potential demand for Nepalis. A foreign employment business fund has been set up for welfare tasks, funded by interest from the Rs20 million escrow deposit of each manpower company parked at commercial banks. A guideline is being drawn up jointly by recruiters and the government.

What are some of the lessons from the pandemic?

First, we need to be more proactive in our decision-making. Even in instances when the governments or employers offered to send migrants desperate to get home at their own expense last year, we did not allow it due to blanket rules about flights.

Second, our embassies need to be strengthened significantly to handle grievances better. The staff size at embassies is not proportionate to the numbers of Nepali workers there.

Third, our governance system isn’t prepared to handle undocumented workers. The documentation status of migrants does not determine incoming remittances, so we should support all stranded migrants during a crisis.

Fourth, recruiters should have been involved more during repatriation.

On the bright side, the pandemic forced us to expedite technology adoption. Migrants can now renew labour approvals from anywhere in the world, and we have also started recording data on returnees.

Read Also

Nepali workers overseas toil through the pandemic, Upasana Khadka

Crossborder virus and Nepali migrant workers, Upasana Khadka

What was your experience at DoFE with the free-visa-free-ticket policy?

Free-visa-free-ticket is a populist policy implemented without considering the migration ecosystem. It isn’t being implemented and we don’t have the capacity to do so in today’s context. This has also larger implications like the government losing a high amount of tax revenue and workers not having the receipt of actual payment made.

Revising the cap on services from Rs 10,000 to first month’s salary as demanded by recruiters is reasonable in cases where employers are not providing service fees--provided the penalty for overcharging workers is increased. This reform will also be meaningless if diplomatic efforts are not ramped up to get governments of destination countries and employers on board. I have heard anecdotes of Nepali recruiters paying Rs250,000 to bag jobs that pay only Rs50,000. Our recruiters do not have direct access to employers but operate through agents abroad. Most employers or foreign agents are also not ethical, so the costs trickle down to workers.

We have not been able to get into the crux of the issue and some policies are merely populist. Sting operations are insufficient. The number of recruiting agencies in Nepal at 853 is too high. Incentives to facilitate mergers or regulations to drive out the bad apples are needed so that monitoring is easier. For that we need a strong governance system and bold leadership free of manipulation, political interference and corruption.

And the ban on overseas household workers?

The domestic work sector is problematic, especially in West Asia. Those in Japan, Cyprus and Turkey are not facing such systemic problems. It is not just Nepal that implements the ban which signals that there are problems in this sector. I get desperate calls from domestic workers in transit in Sri Lanka, Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia pleading for rescue support. I am not in favor of lifting the ban completely but to have approaches specific for each country, especially domestic worker-specific bilateral labour agreements with countries that also have in place strong domestic worker specific regulations. A key criteria is that embassies and families should be able to reach domestic workers when necessary.

What are three of your priorities that you hope your successor will continue?

The way to minimise corruption is via faceless service so recruiters and bureaucrats do not have to meet in person. We are almost there with the current online system. The remaining kinks need to be immediately ironed out so everything can be done digitally. Eventually, we also need to go to a one-door system, so migrants don’t have to go to different offices for migration-related services.

There is a high demand for workers in Europe but we don’t have active diplomatic presence in many European countries and demand attestation, market exploration, worker protection etc become a problem. Otherwise we either lose opportunities, or migrants take circuitous routes with high recruitment costs.

Finally, we lack understanding on the skills profile of our youth or a systematic way to monitor labour opportunities abroad. What skills or training do they have, what is needed abroad?

Overall, we have a robust foreign employment management architecture with dedicated agencies and policies which is something to be optimistic about. Our singular focus should be on its implementation.

Read Also:

Commercially important people, Editorial

Upasana Khadka