Why has zero-cost migration not happened?

Recruiters are still taking advantage of the desperation of workers for a better shot at life


Labour migration touches every Nepali in one way or another. The pain of departure at the airport, the joy of reunion. Aspirations drive us to move to wherever we get more credit, recognition or money.

The confidence with which a person fastens the seat-belt on a plane reveals whether Doha is the final destination or just a place of transit – and that determines treatment by flight attendants. Regardless of the differences in where, why and how we move, we are all aspiring for a better shot at life.

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The migrant industry has evolved: the private sector has seen an opportunity for arbitrage, the government tries to regulate it with policies, and the media, human rights organisations and non-profits are story-tellers, watchdogs and advocates.

Platforms like the Global Compact for Migration and the Sustainable Development Goals advocate a ‘whole-of-society’ approach where different stakeholders will work collectively to advance the goals of good migration.

We have come a long way, but we need to see more tangible impact. The discussion has to move from what should be to where we actually are. The chasm between de-jure and de-facto in the foreign employment industry is so wide that it is easy to fall between the cracks.

Everyone is quick to point out that zero-cost migration is not happening. There is public litigation and there are supreme court orders. We hold rallies and conferences and we write about the issue. There are random surveys at airports that seek to find out what workers are paying. And guess what, it is not zero.

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While this attention is necessary to keep the debate alive, the focus of our discourse should now shift from ‘if’ it can be implemented to ‘why’ it has not been, and ‘how’ it can be enforced.

Workers are willing to pay. Let’s start there. They are convinced there is a brighter future waiting for them. If you take me to America, I will pay you $40,000. If you get me a janitor job in West Asia, I will pay $1,500. If you find me a security guard or driver job, I may pay you $5,000.

The cases that end up coming to the notice of authorities are those in which there is no job in return for the money spent. By the time this becomes clear, it is too late because the worker does not have proof of the transaction. On the flipside, after the provision in the Malaysia-Nepal MOU requiring employers to pay for visa and ticket, Malaysian companies are reportedly lamenting that it is too expensive to hire Nepalis. Let that sink in: a profit-driven industry in Malaysia is complaining about losing competitiveness after having to bear the costs that had otherwise been borne by a poor worker himself.

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The recruiters are taking advantage of the absolute desperation of workers for a better life. They know their role is indispensable and that it will remain so. When one worker is charged in exchange for a promised job, it costs $1,000. If one considers that every one of the 4 million workers mobilised in the last decade paid this amount, the total is astronomical. There is also double dipping: with employers paying for the same placement.

With that kind of money floating around, decisions on political careers and diplomatic postings can be swayed. To flourish in the foreign employment sector in Nepal Labour Ministers or bureaucrats have to be willing participants in sharing the loot, or complacent and indifferent.  Anything else, and you are out.

Despite all this, a comparative study on recruitment costs borne by workers from Bangladesh or Pakistan are at least three to four-fold more than what a Nepali worker pays. If there are positive ways to reduce costs based on practical lessons, those should drive our narrative and not just de jure principles. Research and advocacy should focus on identifying the few employers who are actually willing to participate in the zero-cost scheme, like the Responsible Business Alliance-affiliated employers in Malaysia.

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The driving force for this may very well be pressure on the employer from due diligence imposed by headquarters in Europe and America, and not concern for the worker. Recent surprise raids by the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) in response to worker complaints seem promising. But how much longer before the current Director General of DOFE is seen as a threat and is transferred? What can be done to instill fear among the 850 plus recruiters in Kathmandu that such raids are not an exception but the rule? How can recent bilateral agreements for zero-cost migration be operationalised?

What we need now is what scholars call ‘labour market realism’, that implementation needs to begin from labour market realities rather than ideals and principles. Our efforts are inadequate if we limit ourselves to finding out from a handful of workers that they are paying, or if we continue to inform a handful of potential workers that they should not be paying, knowing very well that the minute they are in the clutches of the recruiter, they will pay.

Upasana Khadka writes this column Labour Mobility every month in Nepali Times analysing trends affecting Nepal's workers abroad.

Upasana Khadka