The Covid pandemic had a major impact on Nepal’s economic mainstay, overseas employment. Those stuck abroad in 2020 were unable to return to Nepal, even when they lost their jobs. Migrant workers in Nepal could not resume or start overseas employment. Many chose to stay on and hold on to jobs, even when wages and work hours were not ideal.
Laid-off workers did return home en masse, only to find that lofty promises of reintegration were just that: promises. Despite all this, remittances defied predictions.
In 2021, jobs abroad started reopening, even though migrants faced complicated, costly and confusing requirements related to vaccines and quarantines.
A year on, foreign employment has not just recovered but surpassed pre-pandemic levels. More than 630,000 Nepalis left for overseas jobs in the last fiscal year — a huge jump in labour approvals from 166,698 in 2021, and 368,433 in 2020.
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Nearly 78% of the permits so far this year were for just three countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. And only 8% of them were obtained by female workers. The revival of overseas labour also brings relief to recruitment agencies whose business had been adversely impacted over the last two years.
Under the Korea Employment Permit Scheme and Israel caregiver G2G workers underwent gruelling test and selection processes, but were unable to leave and were stranded for years. But by now, and estimated 6,000 of the 10,000 Nepalis have started EPS related employment in South Korea.
Demand for jobs in Malaysia has also rebounded, and recruiters say it is difficult to find seats on flights out, and fares are expensive.
A majority of Nepali workers continue to pay high fees for placements, but there are a few ethical recruitment initiatives that do not charge any fees. Recruiters attribute this to some multinationals in Malaysia have come under global scrutiny, and faced export bans due to evidence of forced labour conditions, including high recruitment fees.
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Nepal has also announced that it will allow recruitment of workers for short-term contracts in Qatar provided the employer bears all the costs of recruitment. The labour approval process in Nepal requires that workers have a contract of at least 2 years, but given the surge in demand for hospitality workers in Qatar for the World Cup the government has made an exception.
Other countries like the UK have also been spotlighted for high recruitment fees paid by Nepali workers in seasonal agriculture jobs. Despite that, employment in Britain is highly prized by Nepali workers who are applying in large numbers as that country faces a severe labour shortage.
Despite the revival of foreign employment after the pandemic, there is poor implementation of Nepal’s policy on reintegration of returning workers due to government apathy. The newly issued reintegration guideline prioritises economic reintegration support in both wage- and self-employment while also prioritising a range of social reintegration support including psychosocial counselling for those who need it.
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With the World Cup in Qatar set to start in November, there are also some employers in the hospitality industry hiring workers at zero fees. High profile projects overseas with reputational and financial risks have created a demand for ethical sourcing.
Despite delays, the directive is a much needed step in the right direction. But as we have stressed before in this space, the real test lies in its implementation.
The most tragic cases of returning workers are those who die overseas, and are flown back to Kathmandu airport in coffins on the very flights that are taking more migrants abroad. There were 1,242 deaths of migrant workers overseas in the last fiscal year, with most of those families receiving financial compensation from the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund.
The actual number of deaths is probably higher given that this is only a tally of the families that received financial compensation for which valid labour approvals are required. The highest fatalities of Nepali workers in the past year were in Saudi Arabia (362), Malaysia (280), Qatar (239) and the UAE (208).
According to government records, the most common cause of death were chronic disease (427), suicide (140), traffic accidents (119), cardiac arrest (104) and ‘natural’ deaths (171). Many of these deaths go uncompensated by foreign employers, and many unexplained fatalities are seldom properly investigated.
This remains a dark reality of Nepal’s overseas employment story, and many of these deaths were probably preventable. But as we have previously reported, Nepalis are dying abroad but also dying to work abroad. And therein lies our conundrum.
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