hen Nawaraj Bhandari returned to Nepal last January after working for two years in Qatar, he was ecstatic. After all, he was about to see his wife and little daughter again, and he had plans of staying put in his home country. For Bhandari, there would be no more going overseas just to earn a living.
Or so he thought. Today Bhandari is back in Qatar, working once more as a delivery driver, albeit in a new company.
“I had to leave my five-months-pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter, which was very heartbreaking,” says the 32-year-old. “But there was no choice.”
“I had some savings, which were used over the time, and I was almost bankrupt,” he adds. “My wife has also become pregnant, which made things even more critical.”
Bhandari believes that the country’s second lockdown in late April — which lasted until September — had a lot to do with his failure to find a job in Nepal. But even without the pandemic that has led to lockdowns, he may still have had a hard time landing work in his own country. Says labor migration and employment expert Jeevan Baniya: “Going abroad (to earn a living) is not a choice; it’s a compulsion in Nepal as the government has failed to provide either jobs or support to unemployed people.”
Baniya is an assistant director at the Center for the Study of Labor and Mobility at Social Science Baha, a Kathmandu-based think tank. He says, “If the government was able to provide social security allowance to the unemployed people, or free education or free health care facilities, the situation would have been different in Nepal. But as no such facilities are provided, people are compelled to leave the country seeking better opportunities.”
The more cynical among observers say, though, that with overseas migrant workers pouring in so much money into the state’s coffers, the government is in no hurry to discourage Nepalis from seeking employment abroad. It has been estimated that some 30 percent of the country’s GDP comes from such workers’ remittances. In the last fiscal year alone, which ended in mid-July, Nepali migrant workers sent home NPR961.05 billion (US$8 billion), a record total annual remittance since Nepalis started to look for overseas employment in droves more than two decades ago.
And yet the government seems to have paid scant attention to the welfare of Nepali overseas workers. This has left them open to difficulties that could have been avoided, as well as to abuse.
No help for homecoming
For instance, when much of the world went on lockdown last year and businesses were shuttered, at least 500,000 Nepali workers expressed their desire to return home. But while other governments chartered flights to take their overseas workers home, Nepali workers were left on their own to figure out their way back.
Ramesh Chaudhari, who used to work in a restaurant in Malaysia, says that many of his friends took out loans just so they could return to Nepal. Meanwhile, many Nepali workers in India had to walk for days, enduring harassment and hunger on the way, just so they could make it back to their country.
For some reason, the government has no exact data on how many Nepalis are currently employed abroad. But at least 7 percent of the country’s 30 million people are estimated to be working overseas.
According to the Migration in Nepal report, there are about 500,000 Nepali migrants in Malaysia, the most popular labor destination for workers on record. This is followed by Qatar with over 400,000, Saudi Arabia with 334,451, the United Arab of Emirates with 224,905, and Kuwait with 70,000. These five countries alone accommodate over 1.5 million Nepalis.
The majority of Nepalis who work abroad, however, are in India. There are no official figures since Nepal and India share an open border. Unofficial estimates vary widely, but the Nepali population in India is said to be between three to four million.
Men outnumber women among Nepalis working overseas. Data from the Department of Foreign Employment (DFE) show that out of 61,428 labor permits issued last fiscal year, only 5,549 were for female workers. DFE director Kamal Gyawali also says, “Majority of (male) applicants are unskilled so they apply to work as labor or security guards. Females apply for the jobs related to caregiving or domestic help.”
Labor migration expert Baniya says that overseas, many Nepali workers face problems like wage thefts, salary cuts, and unfavorable working conditions. But he says that Nepalis do not file “any complaint in the Nepali embassy of that country or in Nepal, as they don’t trust the government.”
“It’s not easy to file a complaint,” he says, as the embassies usually “do not properly respond to the calls made by such workers.” Many people are also unaware of the complaint process, says Baniya.
A 2020 U.S. State Department report observes as well that Nepal’s government services “for its nationals exploited abroad remained inadequate,” with Nepali officials acknowledging staff and resource constraints. Moreover, the report says that while Nepal has signed labor-recruitment memoranda of understanding with some countries, “it was unclear how the government would enforce these worker protections because it did not adequately enforce these same worker protections under similar schemes.”
Duped and trafficked
Many Nepalis wanting to work overseas, though, have encountered problems even while still in their homeland. Some have been duped by agents for large sums of money, while others have ended up as victims of human trafficking.
Superintendent Anjana Shrestha at the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau says that if foreign-job aspirants are duped by agents, such cases are handled by the DFE. Her bureau investigates cases in which people were sent through illegal channels without government permits.
Official data show that in the last fiscal year, 136 cases related to human trafficking were filed with the bureau. Coordinating with other agencies, it was able to rescue 86 people, all of them female.
“Majority of complainants were female, who were lured by traffickers by showing lucrative job opportunities, and later were either sold to brothel houses in India or in Europe and Gulf countries,” says Shrestha.
On average, the bureau receives 200 cases a year. In the last five fiscal years, 1,002 human trafficking cases were filed with the bureau. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) itself says that some 35,000 Nepalis are trafficked each year and end up in dangerous foreign employment, adult entertainment, and child labor activities.
DFE, for its part, says that from July 16, 2020 to July 15, 2021, 772 people filed complaints, claiming they were been duped by fraudsters of over NPR590 million (US$4.91 million).
Gyawali says that many people became unemployed due to the pandemic, so many are now very desperate for jobs. He says that when these people hear about vacancies abroad, they jump at the chance without properly checking into the job offer and the company behind it.
In fact, a 2017-18 government survey on labor already put the country’s unemployment rate at 11.4 percent. But economist Chandan Sapkota says that “a more realistic number based on a broader measure of labor underutilization would be as high as 39.3 percent.” The pandemic, says Sapkota, could have only led to a higher unemployment rate.
In any case, Gyawali says, “While it is important to check the credentials of the recruitment agent, job aspirants should also verify the demand letter of the company by inquiring with the embassy concerned. The government has also fixed the recruitment fees that job aspirants should pay to the agencies after getting a visa. If the agencies demand more money, then the job aspirants can file complaints at the Department of Foreign Employment.”
DFE was spun off from the labor department by way of a 2008 law to respond to the growing, complex needs of Nepali overseas workers. Aside from policy and regulatory functions that include allowing and regulating institutions providing training related to foreign-employment orientation, DFE also coordinates with the Foreign Employment Promotion Board to inform the public and assist migrant workers.
Little-known state schemes
For the fiscal year 2020-21, the government has pledged seed money to innovative youths, entrepreneurs, and returning migrant workers to start new ventures.
The annual budget for this fiscal year puts a heavy weight on employment generation, much of which is focused on benefiting returning migrant workers. The government has set an ambitious goal of creating over 700,000 local jobs this fiscal year.
But according to a situationer report on Nepali migrant workers during the pandemic, an overwhelming 70 percent of surveyed workers were completely unaware of these programs that were featured prominently in this year’s budget.
The survey, conducted among 625 migrant workers based in eight primary destination countries — United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, and India — found that only two percent of the respondents knew how to access the government schemes.
These include the Prime Minister Employment Program, Prime Minister Agriculture Modernization Project, Youth and Small Entrepreneur Self Employment Program, soft-loan schemes for returning migrant workers, and various other government-supported vocational training programs.
In truth, all these draw blanks with Nawaraj Bhandari, now toiling away in Qatar, and Ramesh Chaudhari, who had been hoping for a hand from the government since he was forced to return home from Malaysia more than a year ago.
Left unemployed for such a long period, Chaudhari has given up even just on hearing from the government. He says, “I have no work now and I am facing difficulties even to sustain my family of five, including two sons, a mother, and a wife. I am again searching for jobs in the Gulf countries. If I get any opportunities, I will take some loans from friends and relatives and will go again.” ●
Shuvam Dhungana is a reporter based in Nepal. He has written for a number of mainstream media outfits in the country, including The Kathmandu Post, The Record Nepal, The Himalayan Times, and myRepublica. He tweets @dhungana_shuvam.