Migrant workers would return home with money and gifts. Now it is just themselvesWith contracts terminated and jobs lost due to the pandemic, homecoming for Nepalis who left the country for work is not a joy amidst an uncertain future.
For months Bikash Khatri had been telling his employer he wanted to return home. On Saturday he left Kuala Lumpur with a ticket his employer bought him. And with a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test his employer paid for.
But he is not excited he will be home soon. He is coming back empty-handed.
“There was no work nor much income, so I thought of returning home,” Khatri told the Post from Kuala Lumpur International Airport before boarding his flight to Kathmandu on Saturday morning.
Khatri, who worked at a restaurant since 2014, has been sent home since business was affected in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
All he had with him was Malaysian Ringgit (RM) 100, equivalent to Rs2,850. With this he has to get to his village in Dolakha once he lands in Kathmandu. He did not have any money to buy gifts for his family before boarding the flight.
Earlier when they returned from Gulf countries, Malaysia and elsewhere, migrant workers came back with not only remittance but also with household items like television sets, mobile phones, cameras, music systems, among other electronic gadgets and appliances, and gold and other valuables.
The sight of returnees struggling to push their luggage trolleys loaded with bags and a box of TV used to be common at the country’s lone international airport during normal times.
The scene at the airport has changed lately.
“I was paid my dues of Malaysian Ringgit (RM) 1,300 three months back, and since then there was no money,” said Khatri.
Bikash’s job once fetched him around RM 2,400 (Rs 68,407) per month during pre-pandemic times when there used to be allowances as well as overtime work.
With the pandemic making their employment prospects uncertain and leaving them with no option other than returning home suddenly, these workers are not only coming home unpaid but also empty-handed.
Khatri, who had married in 2018 during his job break, had planned to bring a television set, blankets and other household items when returning later this year when his visa was due to expire.
“Now I am returning with a torchlight and a water dispenser for hot water and some chocolate. Thankfully, I had bought these items before Covid-19,” said Khatri. “My wife and other family members have no expectations. They know the situation. All they want is for me to return home. They will understand.”
In the three bags he has are all the belongings he had been using at his room in Kepong, a town in northern Kuala Lumpur.
“I could not even buy a new phone for myself,” said Khatri. “I had thought of replacing my phone, which I have been using for the last four years, before returning home.”
As Covid-19 ripped through Nepal’s labour destinations in the Persian Gulf, Malaysia and South Korea, thousands of Nepali workers like Khatri have had to return empty-handed after being terminated from their jobs or after leaving them due to the fear of infection.
Most had to wait for months to be repatriated, and when they finally got their tickets, they would rush to pack their belongings to return home. With no income for months, they could not buy anything for their families.
“I am returning with some Rs5,000,” said Ashok Rai, from the airport at Kuala Lumpur. “Let’s hope I can at least reach my home with this money.”
He is from Jhapa and one of the nine in Khatri’s group who worked together at a restaurant in Kepong.
“I wanted to return home with a lot of money if not any household items,” Rai, 28, said.
Despite widespread exploitation of migrant workers by recruitment agencies in Nepal and by employers abroad, foreign employment has also improved the livelihoods of millions of migrants and their families back home.
With no jobs at home, labour migration has been the saviour for not only the workers and families but also Nepal’s economy. In the fiscal year 2019-20, remittances brought in Rs875 billion, according to Nepal Rastra Bank figures.
This amount does not include money migrant workers send through illegal channels and the worth of goods they bring back while returning.
With the influx of remittance, which has also been the lifeblood for the country’s economy, families’ access to nutritious food, clothes, education and communication technology has got better. These resources for families, experts say, would not have been possible without remittances.
Although a big chunk of incoming remittance has been spent on daily consumption and unproductive purposes, families’ social status have improved, according to Swarna Kumar Jha, a labour migration expert.
“Nepal Living Standards Survey 2011 had concluded that among migrant families, 79 percent of remittance was spent on daily consumption and seven percent on repaying loans,” said Jha, who is also a coordinator of the National Network for Safe Migration. “Once their hand to mouth problem is solved, they have been able to send their kids to private schools. Gadgets like TV and mobile phones have established their connection with the outer world.”
But the scenario has now changed with workers returning home jobless and penniless and suffering wage theft after their contracts were arbitrarily terminated, according to Jha.
“Earlier, migrant workers returning home would feel like a festival for their families as they would get lots of gifts,” said Jha. “Trolleys at the airport would have LED TV sets, and their hand-carry luggage would have items like mobile phones, gold and chocolates for kids. Now they are returning the way they had left the country.”
Migrant workers finally returning home are not only coming back with almost nothing, but also with loans since they were compelled to return midway even before they would clear their loans.
Govinda Budha Magar, one of Khatri’s colleagues, is returning with over Rs400,000 in debt.
“I built a house and a few months back my son got married, for which I had to take loans. I don’t know how I am going to pay them back now,” said Magar of Saptari. “In my bags are my personal belongings and some biscuits to eat while waiting for my flight. But my mind is burdened with the thought of the big loan.”
Kalim Miya from Gorkha went to work as a cab driver in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates last year with dreams of returning home like his neighbours.
“I had seen people returning home with so much stuff,” said Miya. “I had thought I would bring home valuable household items too, and an iPhone for myself.”
None of this happened.
After months of struggle, Miya instead returned home in July with loans over Rs400,000, including Rs345,000 which he had paid to the recruitment agency.
“I returned empty-handed like most of the people who are returning these days,” said Miya. “But I could not disappoint my children, so I bought some clothes for them with the money my family had sent me to survive while I waited to be repatriated.”
“I returned with nothing but hope. I don’t think I will go back ever again,” he added. “I’d rather do something in Nepal.”