COVID-19: Looming risks amongst Nepali migrant workers

Published 18 July 2020 / By Anurag Devkota

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum. It is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility

Every day an average of 1,500 Nepali youths travel to various destinations in the pursuit of better income and employment opportunities. Foreign labour migration shapes the overall socio-economic landscape of the country. The contribution of foreign labour migration in Nepal’s economy has long been dominant, with much of the country’s GDP maintained by the remittances sent by these migrant workers. Nepal received a total of 8.79 billion USD (Nepal Labour Migration Report, 2020) in 2018-19, when the annual fiscal budget of the country was just 12 billion USD. However, as COVID-19 impacts lead to a surge of returning migrants and with growing unemployment rates in destination countries, the socio-economic landscape of the country is likely to degenerate.

While the current discourse around the world trends towards science and the rise of AIs, Nepal still struggles to maintain the exact data of their absentee migrant workers population. A rough official estimate suggests that there are around 5 million migrant workers, with over 90% based in the Gulf and Malaysia. Clear data is difficult to obtain with those bound for India not included while many others remain undocumented.

The overall concerns and challenges of Nepali migrant workers have been tragic and challenging both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant rights and welfare have long been ignored by both sending and receiving countries. Since the pandemic, the situation of migrant workers has escalated with hundreds of migrant workers testing positive and hundreds of thousands at risk of contracting the virus.

However, it’s not just the virus that the migrant workers are suffering from, but the resultant consequences that have severely impacted the overall well-being of migrant workers. Abroad, migrant workers face employment and financial insecurities, overcrowded accommodation and forced labour, as well as problems accessing food and struggling to pay rent. This is combined with debt traps waiting for workers back home and family disassociation, subjecting these workers to a greater risk of physical and mental health hazards, all while they await the government’s rescue signals. The recorded deaths of migrant workers by the virus loom near 100 in number, whereas the deaths by cardiac arrest and suicides because of fear, insecurity and desperation seem to be on the rise. As these impacts hit harder than the pandemic itself, migrant workers are desperately waiting to return home and be with their families at this difficult time.

However, the Nepali government’s response to migrant workers has been unwelcoming and severely lacking. On a recent positive note, the Supreme Court of Nepal has issued an order that the government rescue and repatriate migrant workers and recognise their right to return as a basic human right. With consistent pressure from human rights groups, including the networks of migrant workers, coupled with the directive order from the Supreme Court, the government has declared it will rescue and repatriate the workers as a matter of urgency.

Meanwhile, receiving countries are desperate to rid themselves of migrant workers, as evidenced by Kuwait providing ‘amnesty’, effectively forcing undocumented migrant workers to leave, and Qatar’s forceful deportations due to nominal violations of internal rules. Very recently, the UAE government has in its official letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal offered to send Nepalis home in their own chartered flights. The World Bank estimates a 19.7% decrease in remittances for low- and middle-income countries, as a significant number of migrant workers are likely to lose their jobs and are forced to return home. The drop in remittances is likely to be far higher considering geopolitical factors of the Gulf, including nationalisation policies and oil prices hitting rock bottom.

Despite its declaration to rescue workers, the Nepali government has yet to devise long-term plans for returnee migrant workers, even though it is paramount they start to focus on the contingent plans. The current situation is just the tip of the iceberg of a forthcoming disaster.

Considering the country’s heavy reliance on remittances and lack of possible alternatives, the current situation is likely to have a severe impact on the overall economy of the nation. The remittances have had a ‘Dutch disease’ impact on the national economy, where their benefit has overshadowed and dried up other economic sources.

There is likely to be a rise in the rate of unemployment, and the pre-pandemic projected economic growth rate of 8.5% for Nepal, as well as a reduction in poverty, are less likely. The literacy rate is likely to go down with the reduction in remittances and investments in education. In addition to these unfavourable trends, purchasing power, access to nutritious food, food security, and the overall poverty rate are also likely to be negatively affected. Just as the remittances had played a crucial role in uplifting these social indicators, the reduction in remittances and the lack of replacement for remittances at the national level are likely to invite large scale economic and social impacts on Nepal.

As far as budget constraints are concerned, the government could utilise the amount accumulated in the foreign employment welfare fund, which was established with an aim to provide safety, security and welfare to migrant workers. As an emergency response, the accumulated amount could be allocated toward rescue and repatriation.

Based on previous experience, Nepal should also be preparing to defend the massive number of cases likely to get filed against employers in these destination countries vis-à-vis the violation of labour rights, including outstanding remuneration, severance pay, compensation for holidays not taken, social security and insurance returns. Considering the shutdown of businesses, including responsible authorities, migrant workers will likely return home empty-handed.

It is clear that if the right strategy is not employed in the face of the current pandemic, then sending countries like Nepal are sure to witness an escalated and potentially permanent economic and social catastrophe.

Anurag Devkota is a Nepal-based human rights lawyer with a specialization in labour migration. He holds an LLM degree on Rule of Law for Development (PROLAW) from Loyola University Chicago as a Gates scholar.

A young farmer ploughing the field for agriculture in West-Nepal.