Pandemic leaves migrant workers with worries piling up and savings depletingWith international flights suspended, many cannot return home–and they don’t have jobs as their contract is over.
Had the pandemic not hit Nepal leading to the suspension of international flights, Nabin Rai, a Nepali migrant worker in Malaysia, would have been home earlier this month.
Rai, 29, from Mandan Deupur Municipality of Kavrepalanchok, works in a plastic items manufacturing company in Bandar Puncak Alam, a small town nearly 30 kilometres northwest of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. He had booked his air ticket to Kathmandu for May 7.
The Nepal government, however, banned all international flights, except two a week on the Kathmandu-New Delhi sector, effective from May 6 midnight, hours before Rai’s scheduled flight.
Rai is stuck now.
“Everyone was happy that I was returning home after four years. Even last year, during the pandemic, I had stayed back in Malaysia,” Rai told the Post from Malaysia over the phone. “I had finally managed to buy a ticket although I had to pay a much higher price.”
He paid Malaysian ringgit 1,550, equivalent to Rs43,966, for the ticket, he said. This is nearly double the normal price.
“My company did not buy me the ticket to Nepal, so I had to pay for it myself,” said Rai.
The flight suspension has been extended until May 31 midnight now, and given the surge in the coronavirus cases in Nepal, Rai is not hopeful about reuniting with his family anytime soon.
The flight suspension has meant many migrant workers in various destination countries won’t be able to return home, while those who had found placements won’t be able to report to work.
The hardest hit are people like Rai who have bought air tickets and their job contracts have expired.
Man Bahadur Tamang of Nuwakot also had a flight on May 7.
“I thought I would be home soon. But I am stuck here in Malaysia,” Tamang, 27, told the Post from Bandar Puncak Alam in Malaysia. “The Covid-19-led lockdown and suspension of flights ruined all my plans. Now, I do not know when flights will resume and when I will be able to return home.”
Nepali migrants working in other labour destination countries in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere too have been stuck and are waiting for the resumption of flights.
“The government has utterly failed in basic things like disseminating information which is crucial for many. In this case regarding the suspension of flights. Authorities should have a stepwise plan,” said Barun Ghimire, a human rights lawyer. “Nepali officials make decisions without assessing the impact they can have on people, including the migrant workers. Such moves just make it more difficult for those who are already vulnerable.”
The decision to suspend flights was full of confusion. The decision was made just days before authorities suspended the flights. Initially, they said international flights would be banned from May 5 midnight. It was later made public that the ban would come into effect from May 6 midnight.
As per government estimates, in the Gulf region, there are nearly 400,000 Nepali workers in Qatar; 400,000 in Saudi Arabia; 200,000 in the United Arab Emirates; 70,000 in Kuwait; 25,000 in Bahrain; and 20,000 in Oman. Nearly 400,000 Nepalis have also been living and working in Malaysia.
In general, estimates by the Foreign Employment Board, based on last year’s repatriation experience, suggest about 700 Nepali workers, on an average, need to return home every day from various labour destination countries after the expiry of their work contracts.
In the midst of the second wave in Nepal, social media pages of Nepali missions in labour destination countries these days are filled with migrant workers’ reactions to the flight suspension decision. Their calls to make arrangements for their return, however, have not been answered yet.
“I had my flights booked for May 8. Who will refund me? Qatar is mostly safe and I have also received the Covid-19 vaccine,” a migrant worker wrote on the Facebook page of the Nepal Embassy in Qatar. “This [flight suspension] is a wrong decision. Why can I not go back to my home? Should I spend my vacation here?”
Another migrant worker pointed out why flights from Qatar were stopped, but flights from India have continued.
“This is a wrong decision. Two weekly flights can operate from India, but why can’t Nepali workers who have followed all the safety measures and have a Covid-19 negative PCR report in their hand go home?” questioned Ram Gautam on Facebook. “The government should have focused on improving quarantine facilities and workers should be allowed to return home.”
Stranded migrant workers are not only concerned about the resumption of flights but also worried about the expiry of their visa.
“My contract is over. The company has not renewed my Iqama (residence permit) for the last one year,” Raman Sheikh wrote on the Facebook page of the Nepal Embassy in Saudi Arabia. “I want to go home. Will I be able to go with the expired Iqama?”
Another migrant worker Suman Shah Thakuri said: “The dream of returning home has once again become just a dream. Last year, the same thing happened. I extended my visa for one year and stayed back. This year, there is trouble yet again.”
In 2020, when the country was hit by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of Nepali workers were left stranded in various labour destination countries for several months.
Last time, when even destination countries were equally affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepali workers had faced immense hardships—suffered job losses, pay cuts and even struggled for basic needs while living under the fear of infection for several months.
Only after the Supreme Court intervened and directed the government to repatriate Nepali workers unable to fund their return, the government had come forward to bring them home through a repatriation scheme.
This year, however, the government doesn’t have any such plans to evacuate Nepali workers as of now and plans will depend upon how long the suspension of international flights will continue.
Last week, government officials from the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security and Foreign Employment Board told the Post that there is no immediate plan to repatriate workers.
“If the disruption continues for long, then the government must work to rescue its citizens in difficulties,” said Dipak Kafle, a spokesperson for the Labour Ministry. “We will see if we can work as per the existing repatriation guidelines or new guidelines are needed. But for this month [Nepali Baisakh month], nothing has been planned so far.”
The remittances sent by Nepali migrant workers are a major contributor to Nepal’s economy. But there have always been concerns about the state’s apathy towards the plight of the Nepalis in job destination countries. Activists working for the rights of the migrant workers have said for long that the Nepali state pays little attention to the plight of its citizens abroad despite the fact that it’s the money sent by them which keeps Nepal’s economy afloat.
“The government must act to protect migrant workers and others in vulnerable positions,” said Ghimire, who is also a programme manager at the Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice, an organisation that works on migrant rights issues. “The same was said by the Supreme Court during the last lockdown. But we are back to the same situation again, demanding the same thing again.”
According to the World Bank, Nepal received remittances worth $8.1 billion in 2020, which is equivalent to almost one-fourth of the country’s gross domestic product.
But it’s not just the remittances the migrant workers send home. In times of crises, they come forward to chip in with the assistance they can offer to the country and the countrymen.
Just a few days ago, as the coronavirus crisis deepened in Nepal and hospitals ran out of oxygen cylinders, leaving critical patients gasping for the life-saving gas, Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf region arranged and sent 560 oxygen cylinders to Nepal on Saturday.
The Nepali state, however, has failed to prioritise the protection of migrant workers whose sweat, blood and even lives keep the country’s economy going, experts say
“If we look at the priority issues the government is putting efforts into, we don't think the situation will improve for migrants,” said Ghimire. “They are not visible to anyone unless they are giving back. For instance, migrant workers who sent oxygen are being portrayed as heroes. But during other times, these migrants are either invisible to most of us or we pretend not to see them when they are in trouble and need our help.”
In Malaysia, Rai, Tamang and their four other roommates have nothing to do except patiently wait for international flights to resume. The bigger problem, however, is—they don’t have jobs now. They have been surviving on whatever they had saved to bring home.
Besides, Rai and others will also have to pay for PCR tests if they get to board the flights whenever they can. On top of that, there will be fines as their visa validity is only until May 23.
“We don’t have any work hence no income these days. We have no idea what to do now. We had to even buy air tickets ourselves despite working for the company for four years,” said Rai. “My savings are depleting now. I had managed around RM 600-700. If flights do not operate for one more month, that money will also be spent. I cannot ask for money from my family. Actually it’s me who was supposed to take money from here.”