Risky businessThe govt should bring in a concrete plan to address the security concerns of Nepalis working in high-risk countries
After 13 Nepali security guards working at the Canadian Embassy located in the high-security area in Kabul were killed on June 20, the government of Nepal has imposed a ban on foreign employment in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Since then national newspapers have been awash with diverse opinions on whether this government decision was wise.
The Kabul incident has raised serious concerns over Nepalis going to foreign lands for work, especially in ‘green-zones’ of war-torn countries, such as UN offices, Nato premises or diplomatic missions, which have better safety measures in place. In practice, the majority of Nepalis hired by companies in war ravaged countries go abroad on the basis of individual contracts through agents and brokers without the knowledge of the government.
The political and economic instability of the country pushes people to seek jobs in other places. In hopes of a better future both personally and professionally, people especially youths are desperate to get out of the country. The number of Nepalis leaving for jobs abroad has soared in recent years; according to recent data released by the government, 480,990 Nepalis left for foreign employment in the first 11 months of this fiscal year. The main reason behind the outmigration of Nepali workers is an open secret: Lack of employment opportunities at home. Thus, people taking up jobs in volatile regions is not a matter of ethics; it is about people’s necessity and compulsion to work in a country like Afghanistan where although the risk is greater, the pay is better.
After the Kabul incident, the government for the first time in its history sent its own aircraft to bring the bodies of the Nepali workers killed abroad. Soon after the killings, an emergency meeting of high level officials of security agencies, the Nepal Airline Corporation, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Foreign Employment was held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to discuss future steps. Nepal Army showed solidarity by sending a medical team to Afghanistan to assist in bringing back the injured and the bodies of the deceased. The bodies were brought home along with 24 Nepalis working as security guards in Kabul on the same flight. Prime Minister Oli with several senior government officials received the bodies and the Ministry of Labour and Employment declared one million rupees
in compensation to each grieving family. The MoFA also directed Nepal’s acting ambassador to Pakistan, Tirtha Raj Aryal, to investigate the incident and coordinate with Afghan officials to provide compensation to the families of the dead and the injured.
The government’s immediate response and preparedness is praiseworthy. For the first time, Nepalis, and especially the migrants, felt the presence of their government. When the whole nation grieved the death of innocent Nepalis, the immense effort of the government provided some solace and raised hope. The Kabul incident, however, also evoked memories of the August 2004 killings of 12 Nepalis held hostage in Iraq. That was one of the worst days in the country’s history and the government was blamed for not taking immediate action to negotiate the release of the hostages.
Employment security and health safety of workers against any kind of fluctuations or dangers related to their jobs need to be taken seriously. And the government’s ban on Nepalis going to unsafe destinations for employment can be viewed in this light. But Nepalis are still going to these places despite restrictions. Thus, who is to be blamed? The government had previously banned Nepalis from going to Iraq. Yet, that did not stop them from reaching there. People take risk in search of a better life and unethical brokers help them achieve that goal.
The country also benefits from the earnings of such labourers. So the government needs to evaluate both the pros and cons of employment in potentially dangerous areas. It is high time the government took the security of Nepali migrant workers more seriously. Simply imposing a ban will not be helpful to control the flow of Nepalis going abroad to unsafe locations. The government has to create employment opportunities and improve domestic economic conditions. Information through education should be provided to bring awareness among people. A mechanism should be built to minimise risk and to discourage citizens from setting off to highly unsafe areas.
The government must also take the initiation to sign labour treaty with the countries where Nepalis go for employment. But more importantly, it needs to identify manpower agencies that send workers to countries banned for employment for Nepalis and monitor them regularly. It is time to put them under strict surveillance. Recently, the MoFA said that it would soon plan and formulate policies to regulate foreign employment with the support of all concerned stakeholders such as the Ministry of Labour and Employment and Foreign Employment Promotion Board. Let us hope that the government will bring in a concrete plan in the coming days to address the security of Nepali migrant workers.
Subba Dewan is associate professor of English at Tribhuvan University