Labour migration experts criticise government decision to resume foreign employment

Chandan Kumar Mandal

The government has decided to resume labour migration at a time when the world is still in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On Friday, the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) decided that Nepali citizens, including the migrant workers who are at home during job break, would be allowed to go on foreign employment as per the recommendation of the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security.

With the decision, the labour migration, which has remained completely suspended since mid-March in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown and international travel restrictions, is likely to resume. 

According to Suman Ghimire, a spokesperson with the Labour Ministry, the proposal to resume foreign employment was taken to the CCMC by the ministry.

“The decision applies to all those migrant workers who are home on leave as well first-timers. We will have to slowly learn and live amidst the Covid-19 and carry on our daily life and economic activities too,” Ghimire told the Post. “We will go ahead and implement the decision at the earliest with the drafting of guidelines for facilitating the whole process. Our first priority will be workers’ safety by following existing public health protocols.”

However, the government’s move to resume labour migration has drawn flak from labour and migration experts in the country.

According to them, the government move is premature, the one taken without assessing the situation. Furthermore, they say the decision contradicts the government's own policy on labour migration in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If the decision were only for workers, who had returned home on leave from the countries like South Korea and Japan where the Covid-19 situation has largely come under control, it would have made sense,” said Jeevan Baniya, a labour migration expert at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM).

“However, allowing everyone, including new workers, to migrate to Covid-19 hit job destinations, where a large number of Nepali workers are already working and staying, will only put them at further risk.”

Baniya, who is also CESLAM’s assistant director, said while allowing people to go overseas for employment may be a matter of right to mobility, it also comes at the cost of their health and safety during this pandemic.

“Many Nepali workers have been infected with the coronavirus, and there has to be an assurance of keeping them safe. Safety issues also apply to their accommodation which, we know, are mostly crowded and in squalid conditions,” said Baniya. “Without monitoring the workplace and their accommodation facilities, employers' financial conditions, history and response at the time of pandemic by Nepali missions abroad, workers will only be vulnerable.”

Nepal has stopped sending its workers to labour destination countries for over three months now, as the country went under a complete lockdown and suspended all international flights. A large number of peole who had completed their pre-departure procedures, paid for the overseas jobs, and, the migrant workers who had returned home during their annual leave have been unable to leave for jobs abroad.

“There is a large number of people who have got their work contract, labour permits and already paid for the procedures to go abroad for jobs. We will ensure their safety and dignified living in labour destination countries,” said Ghimire.

However, labour migration experts say the situation has changed radically for the government to send workers for foreign employment even though they already have labour permits and job contracts.

“Those labour demands had come during the pre-Covid situation. Are those companies in the same conditions now? Has Covid-19 not affected them? Are we not bringing workers back because there are no jobs?,” said Rameshwar Nepal, a labour migration researcher and South Asia Director at Equidem Research, a UK-based human rights research organisation. “Sending workers without Nepali missions inquiring about employers status would only force workers in debt and violations of their labour rights.”

Labour migration experts have also raised a question over the government’s decision of resuming labour migration when it is also busy evacuating thousands of stranded workers from the same Covid-19 hit countries that are still struggling to contain the virus.

Cases of Covid-19 has come down in Malaysia, but Saudi Arabia, one of the leading labour destinations for Nepali workers, recorded 4,919, its highest coronavirus cases on June 17 and 4,301 cases on Friday—the day Nepal government decided to resume labour migration. In Qatar, over 1,ooo Covid-19 cases are being reported daily while hundreds of daily new infections are being reported in the United Arab of Emirates.

“Currently, there are all sorts of problems in the countries of destinations too. Workers continue to suffer and remain stranded. We have already seen a series of human rights violations of workers like non-payment, pay cuts, contract termination, etc.,” said Nepal. “They have struggled without food, shelter and health treatment in both pre-pandemic and during Covid-19 situation. Without any assessment, workers’ health and life will be at risk, especially when those already there are having a difficult time.”

Labour migration experts have pointed out that the government should have assessed the situation in the labour destination countries before deciding to send workers. They have also called for country-specific guidelines for migrating workers.

Ghimire, the spokesperson for the Labour Ministry, said the ministry would consult with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Nepali missions abroad about the status of the concerned countries to ensure the workers’ safety and wellbeing.

“I too think that there should be country-specific guidelines, as the cases of coronavirus vary from one country to another,” said Ghimire. “There will be a thorough risk assessment before workers are allowed to migrate.”

He added the workers will be leaving for foreign jobs on the same flights that are being used to repatriate Nepali workers until the regular flights service is resumed.

Baniya, of the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, is not at all convinced with the government’s plan.

Sending workers to labour destination countries at such an adverse time would only end up adding more burden on the shoulders of the government if the workers have no guarantee of safety after landing in job destination countries, he said.

“We have to review how these labour destination countries and their employers have adhered to the bilateral agreements and treated our workers and protected their rights on the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. Then only we could decide whether to send workers or not,” he said. “We should also consider the fact that Nepali missions abroad, which should be doing the risk assessments, are already overburdened while facilitating the repatriation process. Sending workers during this time will further encumber the overburdened missions.”
The government’s plan to resume labour migration also goes against its plans to provide income opportunities at home through massive jobs creation, which was announced in the budget speech.

“We shouldn’t stop our citizens from going abroad for employment. If the situation is favourable, they should go,” said Nepal, the South Asia Director at Equidem Research. “It has been repeatedly reported that many Nepali migrant workers lost their jobs and they are awaiting repatriation, showing there is a risk. In this case, even assessment is not required to send the workers. Migrant workers are being brought home because they are in vulnerable conditions in those countries.”

Published on: 22 June 2020 | The Kathmandu Post

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