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Policing the New Nepali Economy

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Nepali migrant workers overseas, estimated now at 1 million, have transformed the country’s agricultural based economy into a remittance based economy. PRAKASAH BHATTARAI calls for a comprehensive policy review to nurture this new economy.

A recent news report cited Department of Labor and Employment Promotion (DoLEP) as saying that approximately 557 people left Nepal every day this past two months in search of greener pastures in foreign lands. That news report also said that foreign employment was up by 25 percent during that time. On surface such a trend may look promising to the country’s financial prospects. In reality, foreign employment also comes with many problems.

A huge number of Nepali workers have been going abroad to work in the absence of fruitful local employment opportunities. Migration is nothing new to Nepal, and the total stock of Nepali nationals working overseas (excluding about one million in India) in different capacities is estimated to be about half a million (ILO-DFID 2002). The history of formal entrance of Nepali citizens in foreign employment begins in 1814-1815 after the Nepal-British India war. A total of 4,650 Nepali youngsters were recruited to the British armed forces as a British-Gurkha regiment.

Similarly, the migration of Nepali people for other employment purposes, such as working in the tea states of Darjeeling and the forests of Assam, began in the second half of the 19th century. Economic migration to the Middle East from South Asia and other parts of the world was spurred on by the oil boom in the early 1970s. International labour migration, mostly to Gulf States, Malaysia and other South East Asian countries is a new phenomenon of migration in the Nepali context with about a 30 year long history. Unexpectedly, foreign labour migration has developed in such a way that it has shifted the agricultural-based economy towards remittance based economy.

According to figures released by the government, there are more than 565,000 documented migrant workers abroad, whereas other estimated figures put the number at more than one million Nepali migrant workers, including 100,000 female migrant workers. This figure does not include the population who migrated to India.

The reasons behind migration are almost the same in Nepal as in other parts of the world. Poverty, limited employment opportunities, deteriorating agricultural productivity, and armed conflict are some of the motives behind international labour migration. There are many villages in Nepal where labour migration has been established as a culture of a community; that is, going abroad for work for awhile and returning with some money and the experience of living in a different geographical location. The influence of friends, relatives and well-wishers has also played a prominent role in the promotion of international labour migration.

Ongoing armed conflict in the country has displaced people from their usual place of residence and the alternative means of employment for displaced youth has been established as foreign employment. The conflict has also limited development activities throughout the country and expansion of industries has ceased. This situation has created more difficulty in securing employment within the national borders and the final step of many people is to go abroad for employment. Though concrete research has yet to be conducted, the young people from conflict-prone areas are compelled to leave for foreign employment to save their lives.

So far in the Nepali context, foreign labour occupation has developed as an emerging business. But the business has not remained a dignified profession at all. The reports about irregularities in foreign labour migration and problems faced by potential labour migrants before and after their departure for foreign employment are not properly addressed at the policy level. A migrant worker has to face numerous problems while making a decision to migrate for foreign employment. Most of the migrant workers are taking a blind decision to migrate for work without any consideration of actual income that he/she will receive in the country of destination. Similarly, prospective migrant workers have to face the problem of finding sufficient money to go abroad and the only way to get money is through a loan with a high interest rate. The government, except for some cases, does not offer special provisions to subsidize loan interest rates.

Information is lacking in each and every step for potential labour migrants. Most of them are not aware of where they are going and what work they have to do. They also are ignorant about the actual cost they need to spend to go for work and they lack other social and cultural information about the country of destination. As a result, there are numerous real stories of the suffering of Nepali migrant workers abroad.

Most of the migrant workers abroad are working in vulnerable situations without any effective legal protection by the Nepali government or the receiving countries’ government. Workplace exploitation by foreign companies is well-known but the Nepali government has not adopted any specific labour diplomacy policies, except in some cases. Until now Nepal has signed bilateral agreement only with Qatar and the government is keen to sign labor agreements with other host countries.

While workers are not allowed to work in each and every country around the world, there are several serious cases about the pathetic situation of Nepali migrants working in unauthorized countries without any legal or social protection by the host countries. The massacre of 12 Nepali workers by an extremist group in Iraq in August 2004 is a clear example of what can happen in such a situation. There are many other cases where illegal Nepali workers are kept in prison for a long time on both fake and genuine charges. The recent case is the report about 1,000 Nepalis imprisoned in Qatar. Nevertheless, the government has not adopted proper political diplomacy to rescue them and assure their safe return to the homeland.

As a response to physical and sexual abuse of women migrants to the Middle East, the government officially banned female migration to the Gulf States in 1998. The migration of females is a bit restricted. To obtain a passport women have to produce a permission letter from their guardian, that is, from their husband if they are married or from their father if they are unmarried. This provision indicates not only the violation of women rights but also neglects the fundamental spirit of the constitution of Kingdom of Nepal in the 1990s.

Statistics show that remittances sent by migrant workers near one hundred billion each year and this amount holds great importance to the national economy. Some economists have analysed the country’s economy as a remittance economy, in which the contribution of remittances has played a prominent role in keeping the national economy in balance during difficult financial times. The amount of remittances sent through informal channels has not been calculated yet but it is estimated to be equal to that which comes in from the formal channels.

An analysis of government policies and programs indicates a significant deficiency in protecting the rights of migrant workers and assuring their safe migration to the country of destination. The government has promoted policies regarding foreign employment but at the same time paid less attention to the provision of domestic services and facilities. Some of the provisions mentioned in the Foreign Employment Act-2042 involve the controlling of foreign employment business rather than promoting it.

The importance of international labour migration has increased due to newly developed sources of income for Nepal’s households. Until the late 1990s many studies as well as the National Planning Commission (NPC) hailed agriculture as the key to rural development. Today, the economic climate has changed from an agricultural based economy into a remittance based economy. This is confirmed by several studies conducted by governmental and non governmental agencies. Thus, the issue of international labour migration is a national issue of importance. It has to be addressed at the policy level. Doing so could assist in promoting safe migration and the management of labour migration in an effective way.

It is true that the government now intends to actively promote international labour migration and to safeguard the interests and welfare of migrants. However, only a few initiatives have been taken so far. Among these are bilateral talks with the governments of the Gulf States to increase the number of posts for Nepalis, to ensure their security as well as improve the migrants’ conditions of employment. Furthermore, the government is trying to regulate the procedure of recruitment. Recruiters from the Gulf States or Asian countries must be registered with the government agencies, and they must be officially and physically based in Kathmandu or its vicinities.

For all households involved in migration, it is the lack of opportunities in Nepal for employment and for secure livelihood strategies that leads them to migrate whether within the country or region, or overseas. Households that are poor have fewer choices with regard to migration opportunities and the poorest households are the most vulnerable when it comes to illegal migration and various forms of trafficking. The recent Maoist insurgency also basically reflects frustration of youth with poverty and the lack of opportunities, which is again exerting migration pressure from the affected areas to other parts of Nepal or overseas, particularly to India

The number of people going abroad for work has increased in the last few years, especially since the onset of armed conflict in Nepal. The major concentration of Nepali migrant workers abroad was traditionally in the Gulf States but the dynamics have changed and while the number of people going to the Gulf States is still significant, people are also migrating to Malaysia over the past three years. A class division among the labour migrants is also apparent in their country of destination. For example, poor or less-skilled people migrate to India, the Gulf States and Malaysia and richer or skilled workers migrate to Japan, South Korea, North America and Europe.

Whatever the types of workers and destinations, we need to ensure the fundamental issues of migrant rights of Nepali workers going abroad. For effective solutions, the problems of migrant workers must be addressed at the policy level. The government must first properly implement existing policies that are there. At the same time, a comprehensive policy review is overdue. Basic things that are found to foster improvements include amending existing laws, promoting labour markets through labour diplomacy, and administering manpower agencies and welfare activities to the best benefit of labour migrants.

Female migrant workers are found to be more vulnerable in comparison to male migrant workers. The existing law is itself found to be discriminatory towards women and the issues facing women migrant workers are not considered sincerely enough. That said, the migration of women to foreign employment occupations has assisted in the economic empowerment of females to some extent.

International provisions are found to be very sound and applicable in the protection of the rights of migrant workers but governments in both sending and receiving countries do not seem genuine in their domestication of the spirit of international instruments, conference recommendations and plans of action.

Manpower agencies are almost unfair in their dealings with the workers and their professionalism is questionable. The role of trade union organisations is also found to be ineffective in addressing the issues of potential labour migrants in the home country as well as in the country of destination.

Consequently, the current need is for more effective migration management to reduce the vulnerabilities of migrant workers and safeguard the rights of migrant workers.

Prakash Bhattarai is chairperson of Youth Action Nepal, a not-for-profit organization that promotes human rights and democratic values among the youth. He can be reached at


Thanks to Prakash Bhattarai for this reserchable artical. It is too be good.

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