Migration not a wish, but necessity for Nepalis

  • In January 2020, a 28-year-old Nepali man left home to work in Sharjah. Five months later, his family would learn through their son’s coworker that he was dead from an apparent suicide. The family suspected foul play, but there were no answers.
  •  A man from Kanchanpur returned after working four years in Malaysia to set up a jaggery factory and livestock farm. He stood for local elections in 2017 and won.
  • In Malaysia, a worker died by suicide, leaving behind family in Nepal that included a two-year-old daughter. His family waited two months to get his body back.
  • A woman in Kalaiya lost contact with her husband who went to Malaysia. She has heard he lives with another woman.
  • In Gulmi, a 47-year-old woman who worked as a caretaker for a family in Dubai for 10 years now runs a successful meat and poultry shop back home.

These testimonies from migrant workers are contained in a new report Research Studies on Labour Migration in Nepal 2022 by Blitz Media and Humanity United.

The report explores the socio-economic impact of labour migration, as well as the key role that the Local Governance Operation Act 2017 needs to perform for Nepal’s migrant labourers.

The study surveyed more than 4,000 migrants from 21 districts, three from each province, across Nepal. It interviewed families and communities left behind as well as local leaders.

Read also: Foreign employment revival, Editorial

Since 2008, the DoFE (Department of Foreign Employment) has issued labour permits to more than 4 million Nepali migrant workers, which does not include those working in India. Nor does it include workers who travel overseas through backchannels. But the 2021 census puts the overseas Nepali population at only 2.1 million.

Malaysia, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia are primary destinations for workers. Half of the respondents in the study were still employed when they considered foreign employment, and chose to leave Nepal in search of higher income and work satisfaction.

Nepalis paid Rs 103,888 on average in processing fees to recruiters, and went on to earn little more than Rs 25,000 on average monthly.

Respondents said they had little to no idea on how to ensure safe foreign employment, and there were few policies and guidelines to direct them through the process.

The first-time destination for most respondents was Malaysia. Average overseas stay for both men and women was about three years. Regular work hours per day for most participants in the study was 8 hours, while some said they had worked for up to 16 hours daily.

Read also: No country for young men, Shristi Karki

The survey has also looked at the impact on spouses and children of overseas workers. Participants described having problems ranging from long-distance communication issues to behavioural changes in children that included drug and alcohol abuse.

“Many problems arose after my husband left,” a female respondent from Baitadi said. “It became difficult for us to understand each other's situations. I couldn’t see my husband’s pain, and he couldn’t see mine.”

The study looked at how society perceives women whose husbands work abroad, and leave them to care for in-laws and extended families.

Many female spouses developed mental health issues triggered by abuse from in-laws and the community at large, and in some cases sexually assaulted by family members. Wives of workers back in Nepal were disproportionately judged and criticised by the community.

“My neighbour lives with her in-laws, but the house isn't safe for her,” a female participant tells interviewers. “Six years since her husband left many unpleasant things have happened to her. Her brother-in-law raped her, but no one has spoken out or helped her.”

In cases where it was the woman who migrated for work, household chores like cooking, cleaning, and washing, and caretaking were found to have been deferred to other women in the household, although some men said that they had assumed those responsibilities following their wives’ departure.

“I have a lot of things I need to do now,” said a male respondent whose wife is overseas. “When my wife was here, I never had to clean or mop the house. I do all that by myself now. I also wash clothes and take care of my parents.”

Nearly 90% of families used remittance sent from abroad for household expenses, 81.2% to pay off loans, and only 15.3% responded that they put some money aside as savings.

Read also: Mindful of migrants’ mental health, Upasana khadka

The report has recommendations for the local governments: local-level record collection of people going for foreign employment,  financial literacy and skills training for the foreign labour force, social reintegration of migrant returnees and the use of knowledge, skills and entrepreneurship gained from foreign employment.

Most local governments maintained information on migrants overseas, but the data collection process was neither uniform nor standardised.

“Unfortunately, we do not know a whole lot about current migrants,” the chief of Jhapa’s Gaurigunj Rural Municipality said in their interview. “We want to get details regarding where migrants want to go, skills they gain before migrating, and which recruitment agencies they use and why. If we can collect such data … we can ensure safer migration.’

The report highlights struggles that returnees face in Nepal in the absence of proper opportunities, incentives, or infrastructure to engage in the workforce. So it is not a surprise that they re-migrate despite having faced hardships on previous stints overseas.

Respondents cited 'discrepancies in salary payment' (61.5%), 'unable to do anything after returning' (41.3%), 'skill acquired is not useful in the returning country' (39.4%) and the 'need to start from zero' (37.4%) as reasons to re-migrate.

Among the respondents who were returnees, 36% were involved in agriculture, 20% in sales and service, and 5% were unemployed.

The report concludes on a solemn note: ‘For most Nepalis, foreign employment is a compulsion rather than a desire… to meet the financial requirements but also the improvement in the overall livelihood.’

Research Studies on Labour Migration in Nepal 2022

by Blitz Media 


314 pages 

Read also: Diaspora Diaries

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.