Labour market reformsPolicy and legal measures introduced to improve workers’ conditions at home and abroad have failed to live up to their promise.
The year 2019 belonged to issues of labourers—both internal and migrants. For the first time, the debate over labour issues, policies, their rights and revamping of labour sector, among others, became the mainstream agenda. The year saw a series of policies aimed at improving the long-maligned foreign employment sector, generating jobs for the unemployed through the Prime Minister Employment Programme, and ensuring formal sector workers through an ambitious social security scheme. However, Gokarna Bista, who had spearheaded these interventions, was removed in an unexpected and unceremonious way.
Malaysian deadlock broken
When the government launched a crackdown on various agencies, which provided pre-departure services charging hefty and illegal fees on Nepali workers, what followed was months of suspension of Nepali workers’ departures for Malaysia. It seemed as if resuming of labour migration to Malaysia, the most preferred labour destination for Nepali workers, would be a far-fetched dream and remain shut down forever. Closure of Malaysia, which also gained political attention, would not resume even after the landmark labour deal that pledged free jobs and protected workers’ rights like never before. After months of negotiations, even since the labour pact, the deadlock was finally broken in October this year. Nepali workers would be allowed to go and work in the South-East Asian country after a gap of 16 months. However, departures for Malaysia are still far from gaining the momentum of the pre-suspension period.
Free Visa and Free Ticket still a far cry
The government’s ambitious policy of ‘Free Visa: Free Ticket’ implementation remained ineffective this year too. The policy that says aspiring migrant workers do not have to pay more than Rs10,000 to recruiting agencies for their facilitation whereas the employer pays for the air ticket and visa expenses has not benefited workers yet. Workers are paying manyfold the amount fixed by the government. At the start of 2019, the Supreme Court ordered government bodies to enforce the free visa and free ticket policy effectively. The ineffectiveness of the policy on the ground was again pointed out by the Office of the auditor general’s report, which said the authorities not only failed to implement the policy but also have performed poorly while monitoring whether the workers benefited from the policy. There were dozens of incidents reported when migrant workers were found paying hefty amounts of money for overseas jobs in Malaysia and Arab countries.
Free jobs are not free
The year can also be termed as the ‘Year of Zero Cost’ or ‘Year of No Investment Jobs’. The government stressed zero cost policy while sending Nepali workers to foreign labour destinations. The term zero cost jobs, free jobs and zero investment jobs dominated headlines throughout the year. The government made it clear that its policy was only zero cost jobs or the ‘employer pays’ model, under which the employer is responsible for all the fees and costs of hiring. The policy significantly relieves workers of all the financial burden. The practice was highlighted in all the memoranda and Bilateral Labour Agreements Nepal signed with either Malaysia or Oman in the latest case. But free jobs are far from workers’ reach. Even workers choosing to work in countries agreed for no investment jobs are being charged huge amounts by recruiting agencies and their sub-agents in Nepal. Workers applying for jobs in Malaysia, with which Nepal signed a progressive deal, are paying over Rs100,000. The situation is similar for other labour receiving countries.
Services reached doorsteps
The past year can be seen as the best year for decentralisation of services for migrant workers and their family members. Issuing of re-entry labour permits from all the seven provinces provides much respite for migrant workers who had returned from overseas jobs and had to travel to Kathmandu for labour approval. Re-entry labour permits issued from their respective provinces meant saving of time and money which they had to spent for coming to the capital before departure. This has also reduced workload from the Kathmandu-based Foreign Employment Office and eased its service delivery. In another move, the government allowed migrant workers to obtain re-entry labour permits in destination countries without having to come back. Earlier, thousands of Nepalis who otherwise had to return to the country for getting the permits renewed. The Department of Foreing Employment has also amped up its service delivery by adopting technology. Application and the receipt of labour permits have gone online and made the overall process hassle-free for workers. The Foreign Employment Board has also made it easier for family members of the workers who die abroad or suffer injuries as they can now apply for compensation from their respective local level and receive money in their bank account.
There is no sign of Nepali workers' migration abroad ending anytime soon. However, job opportunities for Nepalis in Gulf countries and Malaysia, countries, which have absorbed large chunk of Nepali migrant workers for years, continue to dry up. As a result, fewer Nepalis are leaving the country to work in those countries. The government statistics show that less number of Nepali workers is applying for such jobs and going to work in various labour destination countries—a significant decline seen in two consecutive years now.
Year of memoranda and bilateral labour deals
Never before had the Nepal government been so proactive in protecting its workers through formal deals with host countries. The Labour Ministry either reviewed the existing labour agreements or inked new pacts with the countries having a sizeable presence of Nepali workers and also with countries that are potential recipients of Nepali labour.
The memorandum of understanding between Nepal and Japan formally opened the way for migration of Nepali workers into Japan, one of the most lucrative labour destinations, under a government to government (G2G) modality. Similar understanding was signed with Mauritius, an island nation, whereas the government has also reviewed existing labour agreements with the United Arab of Emirates, Oman and Qatar to update these documents and to make them more comprehensive in protecting Nepali workers.
Looking beyond Gulf and Malaysia
Since the early 1990s, when Nepali workers started taking up jobs in foreign countries, a majority of them have reached seven countries—the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman; and Malaysia. Although, Nepali workers have formally reached out as many as 172 countries to work as migrant workers, nearly 95 percent of them have been to these seven countries.
Now the government wants to shift its market away from the persian Gulf and South East Asian countries like Malaysia. In 2019, the government formally started its bid to diversify the labour market for Nepalis, by reaching out to the European continent. Eyeing European markets like Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey, the Nepali missions are holding discussions over the prospect of exporting labourers.
Reforms to revamp foreign employment sector
The year 2019 also saw the arrival of a slew of reforms in the foreign employment sector, which has remained maligned with corruption, mismanagement and exploitation of Nepali workers. The Labour Ministry and its Department of Foreign Employment, the authority responsible for oversight of the foreign employment sector, introduced a number of reforms to eliminate the prevailing malpractices. The major reforms came after amending the Foreign Employment Act, 2007 which formally scrapped the provision of recruiting agencies hiring sub-agents. It said recruiting agencies must send workers within 90 days of issuing labour permits. However, the most important intervention came in the form of hiking the gurantee amount of recruiting agencies, which had mushroomed in the country. Despite protests from recruiting agencies and interest groups, the government increased the guarantee amount, resulting in a drop of their number to 848 from 1,323 after some agencies failed to post the amount whereas others went for a merger. The department also made it mandatory for all migrant workers to have a bank account for getting the labour permits in a bid to formalise all the transactions including the amount paid to recruiting agencies, which often fleece poor workers. The foreign employment department remained in the news for its speedy dealing of grievances, increased monitoring and raids at the recruiting agencies in the last few months.
Exploitation, trafficking, rescue and repatriation rule labour migration
Despite a multitude of efforts from the government and non-governmental agencies, the year remained not much different for migrant workers. They were exploited inside and outside the country. While at home they were financially exploited by the recruiting agencies, employers, agents and traffickers abused them in the foreign land. Exploitation of Nepali citizens was reported from China, India, Qatar and Kenya. New reports exposed gruesome treatment of Nepali workers building World Cup infrastructure in Qatar. The nexus of labour migration and human trafficking came to the fore after 179 Nepali citizens were rescued in hte Indian state of Manipur and sent back home. Twelve Nepali girls, who had reached Kenya for lucrative jobs, were rescued from a local club in Mombasa, as part of a Kenyan crackdown on human trafficking. Forty-four Nepali women who were duped by a recruitment agency, which had promised a monthly salary of $400 in China, were finally repatriated. While Nepali workers are dying on foreign soil in alarming numbers, they continue to languish in foreign jails and detention centres as dozens go missing.
Nepali domestic helpers finally return home
The year gave a respite for tens of thousands of Nepali women migrant workers who couldn’t return home from various Gulf countries because the government had banned men and women from taking up domestic help jobs abroad. With the revision, Nepali workers—both men and women—who had not been able to come to Nepal would be given the reentry work permit.
The parliamentary Committee of Industry, Commerce, Labour and Consumer Interest has directed the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security to allow these workers to return to work if they wish to come back to Nepal by providing them re-entry permits.
Jobs but not enough
The years also saw implementation of the much-talked about Prime Minister Employment Programme, a major policy of the Oli administration, which promises minimum days of paid jobs to unemployed citizens. The programme, which initially was rolled out to provide a minimum 100 days of work to registered population, could only provide 13 days of work on national average at the end of the fiscal year when it had gone into implementation late. At the end of the fiscal year, the government claimed that the programme generated over 2.2 million days of employment for 1,75,909 unemployed. The programme also drew significant criticism for accepting over Rs13 billion loans for the programme and squandering the budget on shoddy work.
A sluggish year for social security
The year was the litmus test for yet another ambitious project of the Oli administration—the Contribution Based Social Security Scheme. The scheme, which was hailed as a landmark scheme for the welfare of formal private sector workers, failed to gain the expected momentum. More than a year since its launch, the scheme has failed to attract employers and workers. While employers have shown less interest in joining the scheme, citing additional financial burden and lack of operational clarity in the policy, labour rights groups and government have slammed employers for not becoming a part of it.
Chandan Kumar Mandal is the environment, labour and migration reporter for The Kathmandu Post, covering labour migration and governance, as well as climate change, natural disasters, and wildlife.