Recruiting agencies decry government directive on repatriation of migrant workers

Chandan Kumar Mandal

The government plan of bringing home Nepali workers using the Migrant Workers’ Welfare Fund has hit a new roadblock as recruiting agencies seem to be shirking from their responsibilities as mentioned in the repatriation guidelines.

The new directive on repatriation of stranded Nepali workers says that it is the responsibility of the recruiting agencies to take the initiatives for ensuring these workers get air tickets, salary and other benefits from their employers.

However, Nepali recruiting agencies, hiring and supplying workers for foreign companies, have expressed their dissatisfaction over such provision. They say the government has put unwanted burden on their shoulders.

“Since the pandemic began, we have been requesting the government agencies to repatriate Nepali workers who had lost their jobs and living in miserable conditions. But the government went the other way and started rescuing the workers who could pay for their flights,” said Sujit Kumar Shrestha, general secretary of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies. “Now, the government wants us to ensure whether workers got their air tickets and salaries or not. This is beyond our capacity and we cannot do this.”

Following the Supreme Court interim order, asking the government to repatriate Nepali workers who had migrated after receiving labour permits and contributing to the welfare fund, the government had come up with the directive for their repatriation.

As per the guidelines, only those stranded workers who do not get air tickets from their employers, host nation government, recruiting agency or any other sources will be entitled to the government's financial support. The long-verification process, which has been criticised for further delaying the overall repatriation process, also seeks the role of recruiting agencies in helping workers get tickets from their employers.

However, the recruiting agencies say they cannot take ownership of the guidelines since they were not consulted while drafting the document.

“Recruiting agencies, a major stakeholder in the foreign employment sector, were not even consulted. They have come up with forced measures on us,” said Shrestha. “The directive is also against the notion of the Supreme Court interim order which was about utilising the fund to bring home stranded workers, not about transferring responsibility on us. For a crisis like this, it is the responsibility of the state.”

According to Shrestha, recruiting agencies have been rescuing stranded Nepali workers who had lost jobs and not received facilities as mentioned in the contract before the government enforced lockdown and stopped labour migration.

“Nepal government has labour agreements with labour destination countries where there are also Nepali embassies. The state mechanism should be mobilised for getting air tickets from employers in those countries,” said Shrestha. “The pandemic has caused a global economic slowdown and employers might not follow us.”

Tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers remain stranded in Malaysia and Gulf countries even after months of Covid-19 pandemic. Without enough money and jobs, they have been looking up to the state for returning home. But lack of coordination among stakeholders is likely to further extend their wait for returning home.

“Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act, 2007 and also the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights clearly say both employers, as well as recruitment agencies, have their responsibilities during such an adverse situation,” said Jeevan Baniya, a labour migration researcher. “Recruiting agencies can help the repatriation process by facilitating ticket purchase and other facilities from the employers and also identifying the vulnerable workers who are stranded and require immediate repatriation.”

The directive also says the employers who will not provide tickets to stranded workers will be blacklisted from hiring Nepali workers for five years.

According to Rajan Prasad Shrestha, executive director with the Foreign Employment Board, which manages the welfare fund, recruiting agencies' initiation in getting tickets from the employers was required since the amount in the fund would not be enough to repatriate a large number of workers.

“The directive was brought so that all the concerned agencies can work together to help workers languishing abroad. All stakeholders act as per the directive,” said Shrestha. “Employers should be made responsible first and for this recruiting agencies need to take initiation. With joint efforts, we can rescue our workers.”

While recruiting agencies look hell-bent on defying the government's directive, experts like Baniya say the current situation is also an opportunity for them to help these workers.

“Both employers and recruiting agencies should be made accountable in dealing with the crisis. If recruiting agencies step forward to help needy workers, it can be a historic achievement for these agencies as well,” said Baniya, who is an assistant director of the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM) at Social Science Baha, a non-governmental think tank.

“Recruiting agencies should have rather created a basket fund for contributing in repatriation of stranded workers. Not all agencies may have the capacity, but there are agencies which have made money by doing business for years.”

Published on: 27 July 2020 | The Kathmandu Post

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