As destinations require vaccination, foreign employment takes another hitKuwait and Dubai allow entry only for the vaccinated. In Saudi Arabia, workers must be immunised. Prioritise jabs for workers or make other arrangements, experts say.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Nepal’s foreign employment sector encounters a new problem—Covid-19 vaccinations.
With labour destination countries tightening their borders and requiring vaccinations for arrivals, the sector, already reeling under the impact of the pandemic, is set to be hit further.
Last week, Kuwait said that it would allow foreigners entry only if they have been inoculated against Covid-19 with vaccines it has approved.
Also last week, Dubai of the United Arab Emirates announced similar restrictions.
“It seems all these labour destination countries will soon make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for outsiders, impacting Nepali migrants,” said Sujit Kumar Shrestha, general secretary of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), a grouping of agencies hiring and supplying Nepalis to foreign employers.
“Kuwait has already made such an announcement. Other countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar may soon follow suit.”
Last week, Kuwait’s decision to allow foreign nationals into the country, after a gap of more than a year, came with a caveat—it would allow in only vaccinated expats.
According to the decision, August 1 onwards, only foreigners vaccinated with Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson doses and with valid residence permits will be allowed to enter Kuwait.
As part of easing international travel restrictions, Dubai also announced that foreign nationals with UAE residency visas who are stuck in specified nations could return if they have received two doses of a UAE-approved vaccine. Although the decision, effective from June 23, was applicable for inbound passengers from South Africa, Nigeria and India, according to Gulf News, it could soon be applicable for prospective migrant workers including those from Nepal.
Labour hosting nations welcoming only those who are vaccinated does not surprise Rameshwor Nepal, a labour migration researcher.
“The way labour destination countries had ramped up vaccination drives for their citizens as well as expats shows they were preparing to keep the people within their borders safe,” said Nepal. “Once the people inside the country are safe with immunisation, they would genuinely not want others to enter the country.”
Saudi Arabia, another top country employing Nepali workers, is slowly reopening its borders to Nepalis but arrivals have to be quarantined if they are not vaccinated. However, non-vaccinated people are not allowed in their workplaces and enclosed public places like shopping malls.
Nepal, executive director at Equidem Research Nepal, a human rights research organisation, said the restrictions at a time when Nepal is struggling to procure vaccines will hit people seeking employment abroad hard.
“When there is already a large number of unemployed people in the country, and those willing to return to their foreign jobs cannot do so due to vaccination rules, the situation will only worsen here,” he told the Post.
The budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 had promised the creation of over 700,000 jobs but no one knows how many jobs were created, he said.
“Instead a recent report of the National Planning Commission said that nearly 700,000 people became unemployed due to the pandemic but this figure could be even bigger,” he said.
Not only will these restrictions have a bearing on the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands who are dependent on remittances but Nepal’s economy, already battered since the pandemic began, will be hit further.
According to the Nepal Rastra Bank, Nepali migrant workers sent home Rs875.03 billion in the fiscal year 2019-20. Defying projections of significant decline, remittance inflows dropped by a marginal 0.5 percent in the last fiscal year, compared to the previous year.
Remittance is equivalent to one fourth of the country’s gross domestic product and in 2020, Nepal received remittances worth $8.1 billion, according to the World Bank.
“Although remittance inflow has not gone down significantly despite predictions of a decline, Nepali migrants have not been able to take up jobs since the pandemic began and this will have a direct impact on their livelihoods, lifestyles and fulfilment of their needs,” said Nepal. “Families will see piling up loans put a squeeze on accommodation requirements and even food habits. Such a situation can lead to psycho-social tension among family members.”
In the last fiscal year, Covid-19-related restrictions resulted in a massive decline in migration numbers.
In 2019-20, the number of permits issued saw a drop of 27.5 percent since the fiscal year 2018-19.
According to the Department of Foreign Employment, 368,433 labour permits—the lowest in the five years—were issued to aspiring migrant workers during 2019-20, compared to 508,828 in 2018-19.
Just when the demand for Nepali migrant workers was picking up, Nepal faced a devastating second wave in April. The subsequent suspension of international flights and labour hosting countries sealing their borders barred Nepali migrants from taking up their jobs.
In the first nine months of the current fiscal year, 117,592 labour permits were issued. Nearly 45 percent, or 51,950 permits, were issued between mid-February and mid-April, according to the Department of Foreign Employment.
While 19,808 permits were issued in the month of Falgun (mid-February to mid-March), 32,142 were issued in the month of Chaitra (mid-March to mid-April). But in Baisakh (mid-April to mid-May), the number dropped to 24,363 and in Jestha (mid-May to mid-June) to just 4,086, clearly indicating the impact of the suspension of international flights.
Even though the government has allowed the resumption of flights to labour destinations, the vaccination requirements will throw a spanner in the works.
According to Shrestha, the recruiting agencies’ representative, the impressive demands from countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of late are likely to be affected with the new rules related to vaccines.
“All these rules will only deprive Nepali workers of their jobs,” said Shrestha. “Many workers had even completed the necessary procedures before the flights were suspended in May, making their plans uncertain for now.”
According to Shrestha, even if not all countries have made vaccinations compulsory for outsiders, mandatory institutional quarantine as required in Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia can be backbreaking for poor migrants.
“For example, it costs around Rs75,000 to Rs100,000 for staying in hotel quarantines in labour destination countries,” said Shrestha. “How can a worker pay for such expensive quarantine facilities? This is simply too much for them.”
However, according to stakeholders, there is a way to tread through such a quagmire if the government wants to—ensuring vaccines to outbound migrant workers as a priority.
“The government has prioritised frontline workers. Now, these workers should also be considered frontline workers because they are going to be working outside,” said Nepal. “Outbound migrant workers should be prioritised for vaccination. Foreign companies are giving them jobs and the government has resumed issuing labour permits. There is no point issuing permits to them if they are not vaccinated.”
But that is easier said than done.
Despite being one of the first countries in the world to launch its vaccination drive in January, the government has continued to scramble to procure vaccines even though it has reached out to vaccine manufacturers and made diplomatic efforts to secure jabs.
Government data show 2,500,196 individuals, or 8 percent of the population, had taken the first dose of the vaccine and 731,653, or 2.4 percent, had taken the required two doses as of Monday.
But as the priority groups for inoculations are set on the basis of age, stakeholders say if the government cannot prioritise migrant workers when vaccines arrive, there are other ways to facilitate travel for migrant workers.
“Most of these outbound migrants are between 19 and 35 years of age, and their turn has not come yet,” said Shrestha. “We have requested the government to prioritise vaccinating migrant workers or at least ask countries to relax restrictions and have migrant workers follow health protocols, have PCR testing and quarantine them, even though that is expensive.”
Vaccine requirements for migrant workers are not huge, according to Nepal, the researcher.
“Vaccinating outbound migrant workers will not require a huge number of doses for now,” said Nepal. “Some 10,000 to 15,000 migrants can be managed from vaccines coming from any sources.”
But government officials say that they are not officially aware of vaccination requirements of labour destination countries.
“We have heard about such developments only through the media but have not been formally informed about this,” said Dipak Kafle, spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security. “The matter was being discussed at the ministry too but since we are not fully aware, it is too early to comment.”
Experts, however, say the government needs to do more.
“The government can and should take the initiative and discuss the matter with labour destination countries, explaining to them the real situation and how the country is struggling to inoculate its population due to various issues,” said Nepal. “Those countries can also support Nepal if they want to get our labour forces and also portray themselves as labour friendly countries. It cannot be a big deal for those countries to vaccinate a few thousand migrant workers.”
Shrestha also argues that the government should take initiatives to immunise Nepali migrant workers or take diplomatic initiatives to ensure they are inoculated upon arrival in destination countries.
“Otherwise, workers from India and Bangladesh will start replacing our workers,” said Shrestha.
It is not only about individual workers but also the country’s economy, said Nepal.
“Foreign employment is often the last resort for job seekers. If they cannot even go out, it increases unemployment, leading to impacts that will be witnessed on their livelihoods and daily family lives,” said Nepal. “Workers not reaching labour destinations impacts the national economy too.”