Last month, 127 Nepali workers were deported from Qatar after getting involved in 'activities that violated domestic law'. Last week, 37 Nepalis stopped work at a factory in Malaysia after not being paid and they were detained.
What is most disturbing about the Qatar incident is that this is the first time such a harsh action has been taken by authorities there against Nepali workers. The acting ambassador stationed in Doha was denied permission to even meet the arrested Nepalis. These episodes have exposed the cavalier attitude and helplessness with which the Nepal government and its diplomatic missions have been handling foreign employment, which is so vital to the economy.
Lessons should have been learnt after August 2004 when Nepalis were taken hostage in Iraq and yet we didn't even have a single Arabic-speaking officer on duty who could begin negotiations with the abductors. Our embassies are poorly equipped and staffed, budget is scarce, coordination and communication with Sital Nibas back home, and MoFA's own relations with line ministries is poor.
Worse, promoting foreign employment and facilitating Nepali labour abroad, especially in the Gulf countries, has never been a priority for the government although remittances have clear rural linkages, and is a second major source of revenue. At a time when our exports are declining and tourism is stagnant, remittance from Nepalis abroad is all we have to maintaining macroeconomic stability and preventing collapse. However, the growth rate of remittances itself is in steep decline: shrinking to 3.1 percent against the whopping 47 percent growth in 2006 compared to 2005.
The government has announced the opening of a slew of new embassies in countries like South Korea and Israel which are important destinations for Nepali workers. However, it is not more embassies we need, as much as upgrading the quality of service they provide to Nepalis in these places.
Besides widespread exploitation both by domestic middlemen and employers in destination countries, Nepalis are being regularly victimised by our own diplomats.
This is particularly true in the Gulf where hapless workers who have spent fortunes to get jobs are cheated and mistreated. There are numerous complaints against Nepali diplomatic staff in host countries, including that they refuse to meet victims and do not even speak decently with them. What an irony that the diplomats' salaries are paid by the remittances sent home by those very workers.
There are immediate short-term measures that can be taken to attend to workers who face problems: attempt to resolve the issue with the employer; after a fatality approach the sponsor requesting early settlement of salary, service benefits, arrange dispatch of personal belongings of the deceased, provide passage for the bodies, visit hospitals to meet Nepali patients; coordinate with local police authorities and immigration on matters relating to labour and welfare, crime and legal offences.
In the longer term, the state has to coordinate among line ministries to streamline overseas work so people are not cheated, that their earning potential is maximised through training and workers are apprised of their rights, legal position, and the laws of the country they are going to.
The Labour Act of 1985 officially recognises the potential of migrant labour beyond India. But little has been done since then to develop a coherent labour export policy or to backstop the sector with training and support packages.
The long-awaited labour agreement between Nepal and UAE is expected to guarantee minimum wage as well as legal recognition of Nepali nationals working in the UAE. While similar agreements with other countries will ensure the rights and privileges of Nepalis, it is the government back home that needs to do more for the welfare of its own citizens.
Nischal N Pandey is former executive director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs.