Foreign lives, Nepali bodiesIt is a shame that Nepal has not signed any of the treaties relevant to migrant workers
Even the most cynical of Prime Minister KP Oli’s critics would have to agree that his visit to the airport to receive the dead bodies of the 12 Nepalis killed in Kabul was a heart-warming gesture. The horror and shock of that day, and the usual manner in which we are used to seeing the official response to such crises, were somewhat blunted by the government decision to send a plane to bring back the dead. And, it represents an encouraging shift in how the government views our migrant workers.
Consider, by contrast, an event that took place 30 years ago. In May of 1986, in faraway Hawaii, a group of British Gurkhas on a training exercise had given a sound thrashing to, as the British Defence Secretary put it, ‘a non-Gurkhali-speaking officer’ seconded to the Gurkhas for reasons that are still unclear. Citing ‘a complete breakdown of trust between the men and their officers, rendering the soldiers militarily ineffective,’ 111 Gurkhas were sacked as the authorities were not able to get anyone to snitch about the incident.
That episode is mentioned in the literature as perhaps the most serious instance of Gurkhas standing up to their British officers. At the time, the reaction from the Nepali government was one of total silence. There was nary a mention of the incident in the official media although the weekly papers gave it pretty good coverage, with the usual mix of unnecessary and unverified information.
For a long time, the little focus the issue of foreign employment received was linked to those Nepalis serving in the British and Indian armies. The thousands who left home to work in India in other professions were hardly acknowledged as contributing anything back home. Perhaps it was not all that much or perhaps the country was not ready for any kind of accounting, given its limited capacity at the time.
The service of Gurkhas/Gorkhas (to adopt the British and Indian variations for Nepalis in their armies) in other militaries has historically never sat easy with the establishment in Kathmandu, even though it has sought to make use of that connection for its own benefit—whether it be the Ranas extracting more concessions from the British following World War I or King Mahendra outmanoeuvring the incipient Nepali Congress’s armed cross-border raids just as the Sino-Indian war of 1962 was taking off.
Of course, part of the problem was that Gurkhas/Gorkhas did not fit in with the narrative of the brave Gorkhalis who defended their homeland even as they ceded large chunks of territory, who ensured that Nepal was never colonised, and who were represented by a pantheon of heroes such as Balbhadra Kunwar, Amar Singh Thapa, etc. Hence, the official Nepali version of the myth of brave Gorkhalis takes its reference points as Kangra and Nalapani. For the world at large, the brave Gurkhas/Gorkhas are associated with valour shown in places like Afghanistan, Gallipoli, Italy, Tobruk, Burma or Ladakh.
Although British Gurkhas were Nepal’s largest source of foreign currency until well into the 1970s, in the imagination of the Panchayat rulers, they were a necessary embarrassment to be tolerated only; ergo, the government’s silence over the Hawaii incident as well as the blackout in the official media. That changed after 1990, and the Nepali state is more comfortable engaging with it, even if there is nothing Nepal can do at the formal level since we really do not have a say in how India or the UK deals with our compatriots who have sworn fealty to foreign flags.
In terms of helplessness, the situation is quite similar with the new Lahures spread across the Gulf and parts of Southeast and East Asia. At the most, Nepal can refer to commitments made by destination countries when signing up to different international conventions and treaties. For the record though, none of the major destination countries for Nepalis have signed the ones most relevant to migrant workers, namely, International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, 1990; ILO Convention 143—Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975; and ILO Convention 97—Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949.
Neither has Nepal for that matter, which is a shame given that reference to such documents could be very useful in negotiations with destination countries even if the end result is nothing more than being able to hold the moral high ground. Any country committed to protecting its migrant workers should have no qualms about these international covenants since they can only serve to better the lot of those labouring far from home. It certainly will involve many more obligations on the part of the government and, more importantly, in how recruitment agencies function, and that is likely the reason why there is not even any ongoing discussion about signing up to these and other agreements.
It beats reasons that the state does not care to place all the available safeguards to benefit a section of the population whose contribution to the national economy is second only to that of agriculture. So long as government decisions continue to be influenced by powerful figures in the recruitment industry (who are also major contributors during elections), very few of whom have the workers’ benefit in mind, the destination countries will do all they can to extract the most from our workers without fair compensation. To understand the power of the recruitment agencies, witness how strange it is that not a single trade union has actually worked with their mother parties for the betterment of the migrant workers. The collective might of the working class pales in comparison to the wads of currency the recruiters can flash around.
For now, the government’s sudden love for our migrant workers will be put to the test in who foots the bill for the Kabul flight. From the alacrity with which the government decided to send a plane over, my guess is it will come out of the Migrant Workers’ Welfare Fund, which now amounts to billions of rupees. It is a pity that the government dips into the Welfare Fund to pay for any and every activity defined as ‘welfare of the migrants’, and the recent plane charter can certainly count as one.
A country that owes so much to migrant workers should have the magnanimity to not diminish a kitty that has been painstakingly built up 1,000 rupees per migrant worker at a time. The usual excuse that the government is broke does not hold for it does not take much to open up the national coffers. If all kinds of obscure individuals can benefit from state largesse at the stroke of a ministerial pen, certainly a humanitarian mission is worth more.