By Sara Hasan:
This July the Government of Nepal introduced a ‘zero-cost migration policy’. This new regulation entails stricter punishment for fraudulent agencies that try to swindle huge sums of money from poor Nepalese who aim to work overseas. In the past, the poor and mostly illiterate Nepalese have invested all their savings in paying the exorbitant and illegal fees set by the local staffing agencies. In most cases, the applicants could not afford the money and instead took loans from the recruiting agents who charged them as high as 24-25% (approx) interest rate.
The new policy has brought the government rates down drastically. The previous maximum amount was 70, 000 NPR for Gulf and 80,000 NPR for Malaysia, and now the applicants will only have to pay 8,000-10,000 NPR for Gulf and up to 20,000 NPR for Malaysia to recruiting agencies, for the services they provide (medical check-ups, etc.)
The local recruiting agencies were charging above the government rates up to 1,20,000 NPR. After this new policy, Nepalese public has strongly criticized the government arguing that companies in these countries will start recruiting people from other source countries like Bangladesh, and Nepal being a remittance-driven economy will suffer. However these claims have been rubbished by the government stating that demand for Nepalese labour has been so high that it is impossible that destination companies in the Gulf or Malaysia will stop recruiting. Also, till now the supply has been only 50% of actual demand for migrant labour overseas.
Meera, a Nepalese who works as a janitor at a school in Dubai said, “I earn 1000 Dirham per month out of which I have to send 800 to my family in Nepal, I manage my food and medicines in 200. Though the recruiting agency has provided accommodation, my life is miserable here as it is impossible for me to buy anything extra. I cannot even see my husband and children once a year.”
Not all companies bear the cost of air tickets and visa till now but with the new policy in place all destination recruiters will have to do so, else the migrant will not get a permit. Labour Minister Tek Bahadur Gurung told media, “Well-established employer companies are always ready to pay for migrant workers’ air tickets and visa fees. Only those companies that do not pay good salaries are not ready to provide these facilities, and we do not want them to hire our migrant workers.”
The new policy will drastically improve the working conditions of labour as previously they have been exploited and fooled with false job positions, salaries lower than promised, abysmal living conditions and trafficking in many cases. In the past the labour migrants were almost paying the agencies for their own enslavement. For those who had gone on a loan from their staffing agency hardly saved any money as a major chunk of their salaries were consumed by loan repayment. They suffered at work, their families suffered as not much money reached home after these deductions. Mental stress would compound due to separation from families in times of need. According to Bhola Prasad Siwakoti, the secretary of the Nepalese Ministry of Labour and Manpower, on an average 3-4 coffins return everyday carrying dead Nepalese labour migrants from the Middle East.
Qatar is one of the major destination countries for many South Asian migrant labours. Out of all the population in the country, only 12% people are Qatari. Their industry has been heavily dependent on the services by Nepalese yet in the aftermath of the Earthquake in April 2015 the Qatar Government was apathetic to the labour migrants’ wish to travel back to their homes. Hardly a few were granted leaves. This exploitation was in line with the oppressive Kafala system that allows the Qatari employers to keep the labour in tight control; under this system the employee cannot switch the job without employer’s consent. Though Bahrain was the first Gulf Cooperation Council Member to have abolished the Kafala system in 2009 the implementation of new laws in place has been a façade.
Approximately more than 3.5 million Nepalese travel overseas as migrant labours. This change in every family leads to a shift in gender roles. In most cases, women become the decision makers at home as they take care of children, household maintenance and farming in the case of rural or semi-rural set ups. When catastrophe hit, some villages were more affected than the capital city. These villages have been inhabited by many migrant worker families and were severely affected as there was hardly any extra money and manpower to rebuild structures or access to other aid.
Renu Kumar, a migrant labour’s wife remembered the earthquake and said, “I have seen such miserable times during the earthquake that today I am even capable of building the house again all by myself provided I have enough money to buy the wherewithal”. Her husband had to pay high fees to the agent in installment; the rest was covered on the loan at a rate of 24%. Before his departure, he was not informed that he would have to manage his accommodation and one meal by himself. Two men of this family are working abroad, and both wish to return but the return cost would be impossible to bear due to the loan repayment, absence of concrete roof above their heads and lack of jobs.
Nepal’s 70% population is working in agriculture that contributes to 38% of its GDP, but only 20% of the land is cultivable hence rest of the population is highly dependent on foreign employment. Due to a history of extreme poverty there has always been a lack of skilled training in Nepal due to which the options are limited. Historically the economy’s wealth always drained due to involvement in expansionary wars; subsequent autocracy and oligarchies that kept the population in stiff control. The Rana Autocracy, for example, forced the masses to stay in menial jobs to avoid an uprising.
This new policy is a strong step forward for the dignity of workers, and will apply to countries like Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. Though, this does not cover India. It is a major transit destination for many recruiting middlemen due to the relatively porous border, running illegal nexuses for transport of Nepalese labour to several destination countries.
Though such a policy was long due by the strong government, there is a significant challenge- of lack of cooperation from neighboring South Asian governments and those of other destination countries.