The government can’t shirk the responsibility of bringing migrants workers home: Gokarna BistaThe former labour minister points at the government's lack of seriousness towards migrant workers who have for long kept the country’s economy afloat.
The Covid-19 global pandemic has devastated the country’s labour sector. On the one hand, several weeks of lockdown and suspension of non-essential services have translated into job cuts, unpaid leaves and layoffs in the country, and on the other, hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers have gone jobless, scrambling for food, money and health facilities in labour destination countries and counting on the Nepal government to facilitate their return home. Post’s Chandan Kumar Mandal spoke with former labour minister Gokarna Bista about the government’s response to the Covid-19 situation in Nepal and efforts to help millions of migrant workers scattered across the Persian Gulf and Malaysia.
How do you see the current situation of Nepali workers abroad and home during this pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the whole of humanity. Working-class people, especially those from informal sectors, are the ones who have been hit hard. Livelihood and the life of daily wage workers, who have to go out to work every day to earn a living every day, are the worst affected. The pandemic has resulted in the worldwide loss of jobs, including in Nepal. Millions of jobs are at risk.
According to the estimates by the International Labour Organisation, almost 2.7 billion workers are somehow negatively affected because of the Covid-19 crisis. Our workers going on foreign employment are surely affected by the deteriorating financial condition of labour destination countries and the global recession which will see a shrink of the labour market. Nepali workers, whose work contract is over or have participated in a general amnesty for returning home or lost their jobs due to several reasons are worst affected. They are likely to return home soon. On the one hand, Nepali workers had been migrating to various countries, which has been completely stopped, and on the other, a large number of Nepali migrant workers are returning home, leading to a significant drop in the country's remittance inflows. It will also create extra pressure on employment opportunities in the country where jobs have been already scarce. Even job cuts are a threat for workers employed at home. Daily wage workers and low-skilled workers, at home and abroad, are worst affected due to the crisis.
Nepali workers, especially migrant workers, have been hit since the pandemic. How do you analyse the response of the Nepal government towards the crisis in general and workers’ condition?
Coincidentally, Nepal has lower cases of coronavirus infections and Nepalis have been safe so far. But lockdown cannot be the only solution. This is just one measure. If the Covid-19 pandemic stays forever, we cannot impose lockdown forever. Our management and preparations are not up to the mark. We have to think about keeping the economy going and also bring down cases and prevent its spread, which is lacking. Testing is very low. We lack test kits and limited number of tests so far are a cause for concern.
If the cases increase, it can create havoc. The government needs to be serious and act in a responsible manner.
Migrant workers are stranded in labour destination countries after these countries asked them to leave. Many have lost their jobs. They are struggling with a shortage of food and proper accommodation. But the Nepal government has said that these workers cannot be brought home. While the host countries are asking them to go, the Nepal government is not willing to bring them home. These workers have for long given their blood and sweat to sustain the country’s economy. If the government does not show its responsibility and provide its guardianship to these workers, it is a serious issue. The state presence is a must whenever its citizens are in trouble. But Nepali workers are not receiving the level of seriousness they should have been from the state. Therefore, Nepali workers who are compelled to return home should be repatriated and kept into self-quarantine. Until we can not bring them back, the Nepal government should arrange food and accommodation to these stranded workers by mobilising Nepali missions abroad and other organisations. Companies abruptly breaching the contract of workers is against international laws. The government has to create pressure to ensure that one-way contracts are not scrapped. There is a lack of concern and sensitivity from the government towards migrant workers’ plight.
What should the government be doing immediately to protect the country’s labour force at home and abroad?
At home, the government needs to prepare a list of workers who have lost their jobs, are struggling for basic needs and provide them with relief. Local governments have somehow done their part, but the federal government needs to step up efforts. The government must ensure that the existing jobs are safe in the domestic market by providing relief packages to businesses as well. Repatriation of migrant workers is equally necessary. They should be provided jobs in the agriculture and textile sectors and other potential areas. The government needs to focus on such areas for employment generation. The only way the labour force can be managed is by creating employment, which ultimately helps keep the country’s economy rolling. This is also an opportunity for the country.
The Labour Ministry, the main concerned authority, which you also headed once, appears to have maintained silence whereas it should have been more active. What might have happened? Why is it not talking, or taking the lead?
I cannot comment on the Labour Ministry’s action. It, however, looks like the Labour Ministry is unaware of the kind of crisis Nepali workers are going through and how their life has been affected, which have been constantly reported by the media.
It is likely that several thousands Nepali migration workers are likely to return home. There have been contentious arguments even from the government side about bringing them home. What do you think about their repatriation? Do you think the government can and should bring these migrant workers home?
If Nepali citizens are in trouble in any part of the world, this is the responsibility of the state to bring them back safely and protect them. The government cannot shirk its responsibility. If the government says that citizens cannot return to their own motherland then how will these citizens survive? The government must take initiatives to repatriate its citizens at any cost.
Several countries have said that labour supplying countries like Nepal should take back their nationals. Even countries with which Nepal has formal labour relations and signed bilateral labour agreements and MoU have made such warnings. Can they do so? How should the government respond?
Labour destination countries cannot simply utilise Nepali workers’ life and hardship when they need and terminate their contracts and ask them to leave during crisis or whenever they do not need them. This is unacceptable by international law as well. Nor is this acceptable on humanitarian ground. The Nepal government needs to build pressure so that Nepali workers are treated fairly and their rights are protected. But it does not look like the government is building any pressure
What should be done to provide employment opportunities to thousands of Nepali workers likely to return home? Can we provide them with jobs inside the country?
This is also an opportunity. Now the government needs to prioritise budget allocation in areas where jobs can be created. For example, the agricultural sector could be one of the sectors where the government can mobilise the labour force. The government should also allocate budget for the sectors where the labour can be absorbed. Of course, this is a challenge, but for us, this can also be an opportunity if the government takes the lead. But as said before, the government needs to be serious. The government should be able to make an earnest appeal to its citizens and inculcate the feeling in them that they can be the greatest contributor for nation-building.
This is the biggest humanitarian crisis of the century and it is likely to expand the socio-economic gaps and fuel social injustice. In such times of crisis, the government has to make the public feel that there is a government for them and it should act as the guardian– not only in words but in action.