For Nepali workers abroad, wait to return home gets longer and tiringNepali missions in labour destinations struggle to send Nepalis back as price of air tickets skyrocket due to government-imposed cap on the frequency of international flights.
It’s been months since the government began evacuating migrants from labour destination countries, and weeks since regular flights to the country resumed. But thousands of workers continue to face a plethora of challenges in their desperate attempt to return home.
Covid-19 pandemic-affected workers, who had to wait for more than six months to return home, now need to shell out a fortune to buy tickets to go home. But even that doesn’t guarantee a seat on a flight to Nepal as there are not enough flights for everyone, thanks to a government decision to cap the number of international flights to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“Fewer number of flights and expensive tickets than normal have emerged as the main challenges for workers returning home. If there were enough flights with normal ticket prices, more workers could return home easily,” said Nirmala Thapa, a labour counsellor at the Nepali Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, during a virtual meeting between representatives of Nepali missions abroad, migrant rights activists and other stakeholders, organised by People’s Forum.
Since the government’s evacuation drive began in June, 22,054 Nepalis, the highest among the labour destination countries, have returned from the UAE. Several thousand, are await their turn as the embassy grapples with an ever-mounting number of people desperate to return home.
“The embassy is facing a multitude of problems. We not only have to deal with documented and undocumented migrant workers, but also with people here to look for work, study, intern or those on holiday,” said Thapa.
“During normal times, around 10,000 workers would return home every month. However, as travel was restricted for three months, 30,000 workers would have to be repatriated immediately.”
She said that local companies could not be blamed for not doing enough for workers as they are also struggling to manage idle workers for a long time. “Workers whose companies closed or collapsed or those workers who had recently come to the UAE before the Covid-19 crisis are having a hard time,” said Thapa. “The resumption of flights was expected to make things easier for workers. But the flights we have now are regular flights, not normal flights. The number of flights is under control now, but ticket prices have gone out of control.”
Since June, when the government’s evacuation plan was implemented, 75,660 Nepalis have been brought home from various countries. With the resumption of regular flights, the number of Nepalis returning home has shot up. However, thousands of workers are still waiting for ticket prices to come down.
Bringing home Nepali workers from another major labour destination country Malaysia has also been challenge. The Nepali embassy in Malaysia has facilitated the repatriation of 11,360 Nepalis as part of the government’s evacuation plan. But there are around 10,000-15,000 workers who need to return home urgently, according to Deepak Dhakal, labour counsellor from the Nepali embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
“Workers whose contract expired and could not travel due to the lockdown want to return home at the earliest. Every day, around 300 work contracts are expiring and the number keeps increasing,” said Dhakal.
“There are several other issues that workers need to deal with before they can return home,” he said. “The immigration department here has to issue a check-out memo before they can leave. The memo can be obtained only after presenting a copy of the return ticket, which have become very expensive.”
According to Dhakal, such issues have also been used by local employers as excuse to not buy workers’ their ticket to return home. The embassy in Kuala Lumpur is trying to resolve all these issues by talking to the local government, said Dhakal.
“Before the pandemic, we used to have around 130 flights from Malaysia every month. Now there are only 25, and the number is expected to go up to only 66 in October,” said Dhakal. “The number of flights is still low compared to the normal times, and then tickets are expensive. That’s why employers are hesitant to send workers home.”
“Matters related to the check-out memo, number of flight numbers and ticket rates are being discussed with the governments concerned.”
Labour rights activists also raised concerns about the sluggish implementation of the guidelines the government issued to provide financial support for workers who can’t afford to return home. The guidelines have long been criticised for being complicated and delaying the repatriation process.
“Besides the flights, the directive also talked about ensuring workers’ pay,” said Shom Prasad Luitel, a lawyer with expertise in migrants’ rights. “The embassies should at least maintain records on the wage status of returnees so that we have solid evidence on the number of Nepali workers who were denied their hard-earned salary in a particular country.”
The directives entrust Nepali foreign missions abroad with the responsibility to ensure workers are paid their salaries before they board their flights, in addition to making the employers pay for the airfare of the workers.
“Such record-keeping will also help in blacklisting employers who don’t pay migrants,” said Luitel, one of the members of the directive drafting committee.
“And, if there are still any further complications in implementing the directive, then it can be resolved in a day by the labour ministry if it really wants to do it.”