Chandan Kumar Mandal
Just two days after he was appointed minister for labour, employment and social security, Gokarna Bista made his first major decision. He announced that the Department of Foreign Employment would now be hearing complaints from migrant workers every day—not just once a week. He set up a separate desk to register grievances and identified two prospective places outside of the Kathmandu Valley to issue work permits.
The initiatives were early signs of how Bista would handle the labour ministry, one of the most important portfolios in a country whose economy is supported by remittance from migrant workers. Bista had a hard battle ahead of him, dealing with workers’ plights in foreign lands, labour issues at home, and the fraud and mismanagement that is rampant in the foreign employment sector.
In his nearly two-year tenure, from March 2018 to his unceremonious exit last week, Bista took on the foreign employment cartels, winning him both ardent supporters and fierce critics. Ultimately, Bista’s ouster would come from a combination of entrenched interests that he had upset and the vagaries of political horsetrading.
“Until Bista came, labour issues and the labour ministry had always been deemed insignificant,” Janak Chaudhary, general secretary of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, told the Post. “He brought labour issues to centre stage and established them to be as important as other national issues. He exposed the wrongdoings prevalent in the labour sector.”
During his tenure, Bista enacted a series of far-reaching decisions—either new policies, amendments to existing ones, or actions on the ground. He formed a number of task forces, consisting of independent experts and former government officials, to study labour migration issues—from providing legal aid to Nepali workers in foreign jails to utilising remittance in productive sector and diversifying labour destinations.
“He admitted that he did not know enough and wanted to learn about labour issues, which have their own dynamics,” said Jeevan Baniya, a labour migration scholar and assistant director at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, a research centre. “No other ministry had shown such departures in established policy in such a short span of time.”
Under Bista’s tenure, Nepal signed labour agreements with the United Arab of Emirates, Malaysia, Mauritius, and Japan while similar agreements are underway with countries like Oman and Qatar. All of these agreements provide Nepali workers with ‘zero investment jobs’, relieving them of all fees and costs during the hiring process.
“These agreements with labour-receiving countries were much more progressive than previous agreements,” Baniya said.
As part of sweeping reforms, the Labour Ministry amended the Foreign Employment Act 2007, increasing the guarantee amount employment agencies needed to place to start their business. According to Bista, the increase—from Rs3 million to upto Rs60 million based on the number of workers sent abroad every year—was necessary to prevent the mushrooming of recruitment agencies.
Despite threats of protest from recruitment agencies and a high-level political lobby, the guarantee amount was increased and subsequently, the number of recruitment agencies decreased to 848 from 1,323.
Baniya, however, says that this multi-fold increase in guarantee was a little too harsh, especially as the companies were expected to send workers abroad on a ‘zero cost’ model.
“The guarantee amount was high because recruiting agencies have to do most of the work on behalf of the workers,” said Baniya. “Manpower companies have to travel and negotiate for workers’ demands, but they are expected to send the workers free of cost, which is not practical.”
Bista’s biggest and most ambitious move, however, came early—in May 2018, just two months into his 20-month stint as labour minister. Bista scrapped the exorbitant fees imposed on migrant workers bound for Malaysia, the most popular destination for Nepali workers. He said that the fees were part of unilateral policies enacted by the Malaysian government and enforced by a group of outsourcing companies in Nepal.
Nepali workers were then paying a total of Rs18,480 for various pre-departure services to unscrupulous employment agencies. These fees were illegal, Bista had said, since they were imposed without consultation with the Nepal government. This group of companies had already amassed over Rs5 billion from Nepali workers as they had a monopoly on sending workers to Malaysia.
Following the crackdown, Bista was hailed for putting an end to the syndicate and relieving workers of illegal fees. However, he also became a target for recruiting agencies and opposition party leaders, who argued that Nepal was losing much-needed remittance and could ultimately lose its most popular labour destination forever.
But Bista held his ground and labour migration to Malaysia came to a halt for months. Ultimately, the Malaysian government itself relented and in October 2018, signed a ‘landmark‘ labour agreement where Malaysian employers bear all the costs of providing Nepali workers with jobs. However, it would take nearly a year for the resumption of Nepali worker migration to Malaysia.
Bista’s tenure, however, was not without faults. He was committed to the cause of workers but he wasn’t very interested in communicating with civil society and remained divorced from the ground-level reality, said Kul Prasad Karki, chairperson of the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, an NGO working for the welfare of migrant workers.
“The Malaysia crackdown was also made in a hurry and without much discussion,” said Baniya, who was a member of one of Bista’s task forces. “Although the intention was right, he should have taken time to prepare before swinging into action.”
All of his actions, however, had consequences and a powerful lobby built up against him, said Baniya.
“Since his appointment, he was under sustained pressures from the nexus between political parties and recruiting agencies, which fund such parties during elections,” said Baniya. “Bista ultimately became the victim of pressures from various vested groups and had to make his way.”
Bista’s exit was received with shock and surprise, with many criticising the government for removing a minister who had performed better than others in the Cabinet.
“Big companies, vested interests and recruiting agencies had all been working to remove him,” said Chaudhary, the trade union group leader.
Bista has laid the groundwork for a series of further reforms and the new minister will likely lay claim to the results when they arrive, says Baniya.
“Whoever comes to the ministry from here on,” said Baniya, “will be compared with Bista.”