Nepal should better brand its workforce abroadGanesh Gurung, labour and migration expert, on pertinent issues of foreign employment including worker safety and ways to resolve them.
Ganesh Gurung has extensively studied the situation of Nepali migrant workers employed all over the world. In light of the tragic killing of 10 Nepali students in Israel, Thira Lal Bhusal of the Post sat with him to discuss pertinent issues of foreign employment including worker safety and ways to resolve them. Excerpts:
The recent killings of Nepali students in Israel has again brought to light the issue of safety of Nepali migrant workers and others spread over the world. How safe and secure are they?
What Nepal is doing so far is send its people in whatever areas there is demand. It doesn’t care whether the people are fit for that work. What we should do is study or survey the demands of workers in various countries and find where our people are fit to work. And our youths should have training to prepare them for the jobs in particular places. Likewise, we should brand our people’s special expertise and efficiency in specific jobs.
For instance, we have a more established brand than the international ones such as Adidas and Puma, which is the brand of Gurkha. It has such a powerful recognition and centuries-old history. We have people retired from Nepal Army, Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and those who return from British and Indian armies. In meetings with Malaysian and Singapore ministers, I once proposed that they hire Nepali housemaids. They rather asked me to send more and more Nepali guards. They said Gurkha guards are excellent.
We have a large number of people retired from army and police forces and our army has a unit specialised in fighting terrorists. If we properly manage them, they can be in high demand at prestigious organisations that pay handsome amounts as security has become an increasingly pressing issue across the world. For instance, a son of a Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing was kidnapped and he had to pay HK$1.38 billion to the kidnappers. Then Li Ka-shing formed a team of Gurkha bodyguards for the family’s safety. Gurkha soldiers are highly sought after and handsomely paid for such roles. When then US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in 2018, they trusted only Gurkhas of Nepal, not other security forces. Therefore I say this is a world-renowned brand.
But we have failed to brand, categorise and prepare our valuable human resources. Had we done this, we would have created a niche market with higher income and a safe workplace. In such a scenario, our people would be safe and secure. Conversely, our foreign employment agencies just send the youths whenever they get demands, without considering suitability. When we send people randomly, in all kinds of work, they might get in trouble at any time. It is always unpredictable.
Besides the Gurkhas, what can be Nepal’s other high-demand brands in the international market?
We also can brand our housemaids and caregivers as Nepalis are recognised for their honesty, humbleness and hard work. But for that we have to equip them with the right skills.
What type of work are Nepalis fit for? What do your studies suggest?
Nepalis have been found fit for security services. This is historically proven. They are also doing well in caregiving services. In the meantime, some companies have also pointed out problems with our people, which is that they are involved in strikes and protests.
What is the major problem in our foreign employment sector?
Our pre-departure system has a problem. We don’t prepare our youths for the work they are being sent for. They show a certificate of so-called orientation, which is given just for two days. But the certificates are reportedly sold for certain sums. So we have to improve on our pre-departure homework, which is very poor.
What should the government do to ensure their safety and other rights?
One basis to ensure their rights is to sign labour agreements. But I disagree with the provisions of the labour agreements Nepal signs. They incorporate only generic points in the agreement, which is meaningless. They should be specific on salary. Nepal receives two to three dead bodies of migrant workers every day. In agreements, we have to include a provision that states that ‘if our workers die we will conduct a post-mortem of the bodies and that will be covered by our insurance policy’.
That would help us find the cause of sudden deaths of our youths in destination countries. Some international as well as national agencies have conducted studies but the very basis of their reports is faulty. They prepare death certificates only to submit to airlines ferrying dead bodies. We can’t find the real cause unless we do a post-mortem. This should be corrected in the provisions of labour agreements. We have to update them.
While there is a need to have labour agreements with destination countries to ensure workers’ rights, there is also a school of thought that it is wrong to systematise the youth-sending practice. What do you say?
It’s been nearly 70 years since Nepal formulated its first five-year plan and every plan has pledged to create employment in the country. And each review has admitted to failure in creating jobs. We have failed in this endeavour in the past seven decades. If we abruptly stop this, it will invite a crisis. Therefore, the returnees should now be encouraged to start entrepreneurship and self-employment. Here, the role of planning commission and other government agencies is vital.
In every annual policy and programme and fiscal budget, the government pledges to encourage returnee migrant workers to start entrepreneurship. Haven’t they yielded any result?
That is totally ineffective. Those with access to leaders and higher authorities get all the benefits. The government doesn’t have any effective follow-up mechanism. Self-employment and entrepreneurship needs a well-thought out plan, rigorous and functioning system.
Are there any success stories of returnees starting entrepreneurship on their own?
There are some encouraging cases but the number is limited. They return with skill, knowledge and confidence along with the capital. Also, such people are in their late forties. So they are mature enough to handle a business. At this stage they want to stay with their family members. Additionally, when they return home, many of them come up with a spirit of doing something in swadesh. With these qualities they are in a position to start a business. But we also found some cases where they get excited by initial success in business but get frustrated when they don’t find any support to tackle problems. The sustainability aspect is weak. Then, they again end up abroad to work.
Any new phenomenon you have noticed in this sector?
There is an interesting dynamic in our economy. Those from lower middle class go to Gulf countries and Malaysia. All those who go to these countries return home and they also send all the income back home. They have helped the country’s economy. They remit dollars. But the upper middle and higher classes are going to the US, Europe and Australia to study or visit, taking with them the same dollars. The latter don’t repatriate the money they earn there. They even sell their patriarchal property and take along the money through hundi in order to buy apartments or fund a sibling’s study in developed countries.
What factors should foreign job seekers be mindful of to protect themselves from cheating?
Studies have shown that established and big companies with international repute stick to agreements. They don’t abuse workers. But those who work at small and little known firms are cheated. Even if a firm has less than a dozen people, they don’t provide good facilities even for basic things like lodging, fooding and working. Reputed companies stress ethical recruitment and a better workplace. They feel proud in providing better facilities to their workers. We have also found cases when the employers have threatened recruiting agencies with action for cheating workers. So the foreign employment aspirants should explore opportunities in reputed companies as far as possible.
Rights organisations and media have continuously raised the issue of the pathetic working condition of Nepalis in the Gulf and other countries. Has there been an improvement over the years?
Yes, there has been some progress. In fact, well-established companies were providing good facilities even in the past. But our youths are cheated by the agents here in the country in the first place. Then, another agent enters the picture before they reach the company. So the youths should be careful while choosing manpower agents here in Kathmandu. Some well-established ones work professionally even while many are dishonest.
What are the agencies that require urgent reform in this sector?
Reform should start from our embassies and other missions. Embassy staff should be able to monitor, inspect and address problems seen in the markets of respective countries. Our missions should establish good relations with big companies. If they hire Nepalis, then our youths need not work in hazardous workplaces with low incomes.
Is the much-touted free-visa free-ticket provision being implemented? What is its latest status?
The policy still exists on paper. But in practice, youths are charged exorbitantly. Manpower agents have been mounting pressure on successive labour ministers to change it. They have been demanding that they should be allowed to charge at least one-month salary for the job seekers. That will leave a loophole for them to charge more. But this demand has been met with huge protests from within the country and internationally.
How can rescue operations like the one Nepal recently mounted in Israel be made more effective?
If our embassy establishes a mechanism to connect with the Nepalis who go to the respective countries through formal channels, then they can be promptly contacted and helped when there is a crisis. A digital database can be highly effective. Our studies show that Nepalis abroad have a bad impression of our missions. They don’t want to connect with the embassy staff.