Nepali Migrant Workers in the “New Normal”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the prospects of many social, economic and political sectors. Among the most impacted sectors is of foreign employment. As COVID-19 hit hard in many parts of the world including the destination countries of Nepali migrant workers, the job market in both Nepal and destination countries suffered to a great extent. Many migrant workers were forced to return home while others were unable to return despite their Visa expiry and job loss. The socio- economic uncertainty got bigger when the lockdown was extended for almost six months in the first wave and two months during the second. The low income families, daily wage workers and informal workers were hit hard by the pandemic coupled with the government’s lack of priority for them. According to the report prepared by UNDP Nepal, “Three in five employees lost their jobs due to COVID-19 in Nepal”. The lockdown imposed by the government was supposed to control the spread of COVID-19 but people suffered more due to the uncertainty looming over the socio economic aspect. As the country was being crippled by the pandemic, the government failed to make a positive impact in both preparedness and recovery as it was busy with the political foreplay. Many migrant workers were stranded in both the home country and their destination countries.
As the country was recovering from the second wave, the government announced its budget for the fiscal year 2021-22. The budget is primarily focused around the upcoming election rather than the critical matters affecting everyday lives. The budget presented by Finance Minister Bishnu Prasad Paudel had aimed to create less than 350,000 new jobs in 2021-22 in a job market that is already filled with unemployment. The government has also allocated funds of Rs.12 billion for the training to around 100,000 youths joining the labor force, returning migrant workers and those who have lost jobs. However, its implementation and reach remains questionable. Each year around 500,000 young people enter the job market and with the unemployment brought by COVID-19 youths have turned their focus on foreign employment. The remittances sent by migrant workers are a major source of household income. The attraction of youths is high on foreign employment due to the lack of economic opportunities and political instability in Nepal. Also the Prime Minister Employment Fund that provides minimum 100 days of work in local levels to registered unemployed citizens is of little hope.
However, the foreign employment sector also faced uncertainty, as the major destination countries have made vaccination mandatory for anyone trying to enter. The government decided at last minute to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the migrant workers. The government started administering the single shot Janssen vaccine of Johnson and Johnson from July 19 and double shot Vero Cell, depending on the departure dates of the workers. The migrant workers who will be inoculated with the Chinese vaccine – Vero Cell will have to give a few more weeks for the time difference between the two doses so it might be a disadvantage to the workers. Besides, Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman do not recognize Vero Cell and only Qatar has approved its conditional use. Since the administration of the vaccines, migrant workers are lining up at Teku hospital for the vaccination and certificate collection. This decision has led the migrant workers into more confusion and uncertainty. This situation clearly shows the government’s lack of coordination and emphasis on the migrant workers. The situation of the mismanaged vaccination center at Teku Hospital represents a dark social reality faced by Nepali youths.
The major destination countries have opened up to let in the migrant workers. Israel has also opened up 1,000 job applications for Nepali migrant workers as caregivers. At one hand, employment opportunities in foreign market are increasing for Nepali migrant workers, but the issues related to mandatory quarantine, hefty sums for zero cost jobs and lack of government’s priority for the domestic job market and the economic uncertainty has pushed the youths towards foreign employment. The foreign job seeking Nepali workers face another threat as many phony recruitment agencies are taking advantage of their vulnerability by charging them huge amounts for false promises of foreign jobs. Also, according to the labour agreements signed by the Government of Nepal and major destination countries like Kuwait, Malaysia and Qatar, Nepali migrant workers will be able to join the workforce in those countries under zero cost policy. This policy states that all charges related to the employment, like two way ticker, insurance, recruitment costs etc. will be borne by the destination country’s employer; but reports of workers going to these countries paying hefty amounts has surfaced. Also, along with the mandatory vaccine, destination countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made QR code identification mandatory for the workers to qualify for quarantine exemption. However, staying at a quarantine facility in Qatar is expected to cost around NPR 100,000. This report shows the implementation, progress and exposed vulnerability of the migrant workers who are at loss at both home country and the destination countries. Also, the government has made no initiative on the mandatory quarantine for the migrant workers in the destination countries. Government must be responsible to ensure best practices and principles to protect the rights of foreign job seekers.