For workers, foreign jobs more crucial than votingYoung Nepalis are leaving the country for foreign employment in record numbers, statistics show.
Migrant worker Narayan Nepali of Dhading is least bothered about casting his vote in the upcoming elections.
Nepal goes to the polls on November 20 to choose the members of the House of Representatives and the seven provincial assemblies. Voting is a fundamental duty, and all Nepalis have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard in a democracy.
But for Nepali, his foreign job is more important than hiking to the voting booth to drop a piece of paper in the ballot box.
“I don’t think it matters much whether I vote or not,” the 28-year-old migrant worker told the Post before boarding his flight at Tribhuvan International Airport on Friday. “Having a job and an income is my first priority.”
Nepali, who formerly worked in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has now got a job in Malaysia under the free-visa, free-ticket scheme.
While the country is preparing for the vote and political leaders are going door-to-door with their pledges, a whole section of the Nepali population has something else on their minds, oblivious to the commotion on the campaign front.
Young Nepalis are leaving the country for foreign employment in record numbers, government statistics show. The push factors are strong.
“Obviously, it’s a compulsion for them,” said Rameshwar Nepal, executive director of Equidem Research Nepal, a human rights and labour rights research organisation.
“This is an unfortunate situation. The majority of migrant workers are not able to exercise their rights. They are able to neither celebrate the festivals nor cast their precious votes.”
According to the Department of Foreign Employment, a robust 63,039 labour permits were issued in the first month (mid-July to mid-August) of the current fiscal year.
The number swelled to a monthly record of 76,403 during the period mid-August to mid-September.
Nearly 46,700 individuals received labour permits during the period mid-September to October 10. Government officials say that the figure may rise as the country’s economy is not showing signs of improvement.
The Asian Development Bank has downgraded Nepal’s growth forecast for the current fiscal year as the economy takes a beating from high inflation, slowing trade and monetary tightening.
The Manila-based bank says Nepal’s economy is estimated to expand by 4.7 percent in the fiscal year 2022-23, down from an estimated 5.8 percent in the last fiscal year.
Labour experts say that monthly departures of Nepali migrant workers reached a high even though it was Dashain, the country's biggest festival, and the elections were approaching, which shows that people are least bothered about casting their votes or celebrating festivals.
“What opportunities do we have in Nepal?” said Nar Bahadur Tamang, a friend of Narayan Nepali, who himself is waiting for a visa to work abroad.
“Here, you don’t get financial assistance for starting a business. Investing in Nepal is not easy,” he said. “But you can easily get credit if you plan to go abroad.”
For Tamang too, who is flying to Malaysia in a few days, festivals and elections are not a priority. “There is a significant level of frustration among migrant workers about parties and politicians,” said Tamang.
Nepali migrant workers sent home Rs1 trillion in the last fiscal year ended mid-July, a record-high money transfer to Nepal since Nepalis started going for overseas employment more than two decades ago.
The number of Nepali workers taking approval for foreign employment increased significantly to 354,660 in the last fiscal year, according to the central bank.
Similarly, the number of Nepali workers renewing entry permits for foreign employment doubled to 282,453 in the review period.
The total figure of 637,113—new and re-entry—is the second-highest number in history.
The highest number of labour approvals was 642,859 in the fiscal year 2016-17, according to the Department of Foreign Employment statistics.
Nepalis are travelling abroad en masse due to limited job opportunities at home caused by prolonged political instability.
According to the Department of Foreign employment, the number of Nepalis working abroad started to increase after 2000 when the Maoist insurgency that started in 1996 reached a peak.
Nepali workers have sought foreign employment as both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors struggle to generate new jobs.
With limited arable land, landlessness is pervasive, and the number of landless households has steadily increased in the agricultural sector.
In the non-agricultural sector, a slowdown in growth, especially since 2000-01 due to the Maoist insurgency which killed more than 17,000 people, further retarded the pace of employment creation, the report said.
Political unrest in the country adversely affected economic growth. According to the central bank, for most of the past decade, the growth rate hovered around a mere 3-4 percent. It peaked at 6 percent in 2007-08 following the Comprehensive Peace Accord between the then rebel Maoists and the government in 2006.
Then followed a period when Nepalis were forced to live in darkness due to rolling blackouts. Between 2007 and 2017, the country went through a massive electricity supply shortage that caused up to 18 hours of daily power outages.
“That youths are leaving the country in droves even during election time exhibits their frustration towards politics,” said former government secretary Purna Chandra Bhattarai who once led the Department of Foreign Employment.
“The importance of job opportunities is bigger than the elections. They do not want to lose the opportunities at any cost.” The trend also shows that the federal and provincial elections have failed to draw youths.
Even though almost every successive government has announced plans to allow absentee ballots, they have never materialised.
Permitting migrant workers to vote from abroad, according to Bhattarai, is nothing but political propaganda. “There has never been any serious work to grant voting rights to Nepali migrant workers,” he said.
Kul Prasad Karki, chairperson of the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, a non-governmental organisation working for the protection and promotion of Nepali migrant workers’ rights, argues that the government and the concerned authorities must ensure voting rights, at least in proportional representation, to migrant workers.
“But it has never been a priority. Migrant workers have been denied their right to cast their votes. The migrant workers’ agenda needs to be an election agenda, but it has not been the case,” Karki said.
"After paying service fees to get foreign jobs, migrant workers cannot put off their departure come festivals or elections," said Karki.
“It doesn't matter who gets elected,” said Ramesh Subedi, a local of Chitwan, who was flying to Japan on Friday. “Bribery and nepotism work here. If you don’t bribe officials, you will not get your work done. So, what is the point of electing your representatives?”
According to Subedi, there is no prospect of earning a decent income in Nepal.
“Inflation is high, there are few employment opportunities, and the salaries are extremely low. The cost of living is high,” said Subedi.
“To fulfil all your family needs, you need to go abroad. Who cares about elections? All that matters for us is our job.”