Selecting and sending Nepali workers to Qatar, South Korea and other countries has been a lucrative business for the over 300 recruitment firms making up the 'manpower' industry in Nepal.
For a long time, they have enjoyed four benefits: As host countries made economic progress, their demand for Nepali workers in menial jobs has gone up. The worsening political and job-market situation at home has prompted more Nepalis to seek foreign employment, even paying lakhs in facilitation fees and giving manpower agencies the upper hand. Nepali politicians maintained ties with such agencies to get jobs for supporters. And civil servants, seeing the crores of rupees involved, decided long ago that there is more to be gained by being friends with the industry than by policing it. Over the years, all this has turned the manpower industry into a cash-rich, politically-connected and a swaggering extortionist dada.
Raghuji Pant, ex-journalist and the new Minister of Labour from the UML, has decided enough is enough. Arguing that agencies demand and receive money way above the government-set price, he says overseas labour opportunities are biased against the poor. Pant's solution-as he is about to impose on Lumbini Overseas this week-is to have agencies select qualified workers through a lottery process under the government's watch. Few doubt Pant's good intentions. But there are two reasons why the business community as a whole must oppose his decision.
First, it's up to the owners and managers of private firms to decide how they want to hire workers without running afoul of basic employment laws. In some cases, the government can provide incentives for firms to expand employment opportunities for minorities and economically disadvantaged Nepalis. But when, instead of making use of the labour court system, it arbitrarily dictates how exactly specific firms should hire workers, then it is intruding into a sphere from where there will be no turning back. Today it is after Lumbini Overseas. Tomorrow politicians with ulterior motives will use this precedent to go after companies in other industries. For private Nepali companies, it's better to protest together now than cry alone tomorrow.
Second, the problem of enforcement is going to grow bigger and costlier. Presently, there are many workers willing and able to pay more than the government-mandated Rs 96,000 facilitation fees, not only because the value they place on going overseas is higher than that, but also because, unsurprisingly, the government's one-price enforcement mechanism remains weak.
Given this context, the government's new attempt to engage in more enforcement-related work by instituting a lottery sounds na?ve and dubious. In the short-term, such a scheme will raise political capital for Pant's party while providing emotional relief to some. But in the longterm, neither the government nor the poor will benefit because, given the money involved, it would be cheaper for firms to buy influence and do their real selections secretly, while putting up with a kangaroo lottery under the government.
Even so, Pant's concerns are valid, although his solution is not. In the days ahead, the task for his ministry is to stick to the goal of increasing the size of the labour market pie for all Nepali labourers, while leaving it to the courts to decide just how fairly portioned each slice is.