Nepali Times
Sweat and tears


Nepalis have been migrating to work for the past 200 years, so it is not a new phenomenon. But a burgeoning population and lack of jobs has dramatically increased the number of people leaving the country to find work. The decade-long conflict accelerated this process.

Some analysts had predicted that with the peace dividend, the number of Nepali workers overseas would drop, but that hasn't happened. Some 560 people are leaving Nepal every day for jobs overseas, this is the official figure from the Department of Labour and does not include those leaving unofficially and those going to India.

The push factor is lack of jobs in Nepal and the salary differential. The money they send home has sustained Nepal's conflict-ravaged economy and reduced the poverty rate by 11 per cent. If there hadn't been a conflict, poverty reduction would probably be higher.

What 50 years of Five Year Plans could not do with their grand strategies for poverty reduction has been accomplished by the 'manpower export' industry. It is interesting that our planners never saw that the way to poverty reduction was through employment generation. When the government couldn't offer them jobs in the country, Nepalis did what they have traditionally done: migrate for work. It has happened by default, with virtually no contribution or planning from the government. In fact, when the government has tried to regulate, monitor or promote the manpower industry, it has usually made things worse.

Lack of regulation and monitoring has led to widespread exploitation of poor Nepalis by fellow Nepalis. Individual instances of cheating and abandonment of recruits at foreign airports fill the media every day.

But there are other aspects of foreign employment that don't get as much attention: the increasing number of deaths of workers abroad. In 2007 alone, 754 Nepalis died in the Gulf and Malaysia. Besides accidents, there is a mysterious increase in the number of workers whose deaths are registered 'heart failure' in the Gulf.

There has been an alarming increase in cases of domestic violence, even murder, due to suspicions of infidelity. The spread of HIV, divorces, children falling into bad habits due to lack of supervision are other social side-effects.

No major impact study has been done on how the money that the workers send back is spent. With food prices increasing, a larger chunk of it probably goes to the upkeep of the family back home. In other words, what is the social cost Nepali families pay for overseas migration? Is it worth it? How do we maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of foreign employment until we find jobs for them at home?

Labour migration is a business and like any business it is driven by the laws of supply and demand. Nepal has to compete with other countries for the price of labour and to compete, our workers need to be more skilled, productive and disciplined.

But government policy on recruitment erodes our competitive advantage. By offering only unskilled labour, we undermine the earning potential of our nationals.

An independent bureau must replace the Labour Department so it can work in marketing and welfare services independently and efficiently and reduce exploitation and fraud. It could also facilitate access to information, an effective insurance system, counselling, equal opportunities to women, tap niche markets and provide loans to people from remote areas and unprivileged groups.

At present, Nepali migrant workers are squeezed by both the government policy and recruiting agencies. That is no way to treat the heroes who sustain our economy with their sweat and tears.

Ganesh Gurung is a sociologist with the Nepal Institute of Development Studies and chairperson of the National Network on Safe Migration.

ECONOMIC CLASS - FROM ISSUE #412 (08 AUG 2008 - 14 AUG 2008)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)