Gone and Never Back: The Human Cost of Labor Migration

Author: Sarthak Bhattarai

In the fiscal year 2077/2078 B.S., 545 Nepali migrant workers, including 534 Males and 11 Females, have lost their lives on foreign soil until Falgun, according to the Finance Ministry’s Economic Survey 2077/2078 (7.31, pg. 108)According to another, the government’s Labor Migration Report 2020, in the 11 years since 2008, at least 7,467 migrant workers have died in various countries. Natural Death is the most common cause, with cardiac arrest and road accidents following closely.

Credits: Photo by Sajan Rajbahak on Unsplash.

A Life’s Worth

The high number for the lives lost in labor destinations from Malaysia to major construction sites in Qatar[1] substantiates a need to engage in a discussion of both the causes and concerns of the matter. In 2019, the number of deaths among the migrant workers counted at 730, of which 111 [15%] were suicides. [2] And an even larger number of the deaths are classified under ‘cause unknown’.

The labor migration report contains concerning phrase, “a high share of cases are not attributed to any specific cause, which has remained an issue of grave concern.” This can be interpreted as willful ignorance on Nepal’s part. Such deaths require further investigation as families are left in the dark about the true causes of demise of their kin. If our labor diplomacy cannot even trace the cause of death, the state of the rest of the mechanisms put in place to better regulate labor migration are fittingly brought into question.

While the lack of data is a concerning issue on its own, it is also important to consider the human and social costs of the the families and communities bear. The loss of financial support that the individual family was receiving through the employment, the loss of human resource that the country could otherwise have utilized in its own domestic services, the vicious cycle of foreign labor as young members find themselves following a father, or a brother, into labor destinations and sometimes death, in an attempt to move out of poverty, are all pertinent to the matter. And even as labor migration is often the subject of emotional coverages and hyperbolic literature in media, public discourse rarely touches upon the issues of the human costs and what policies are required to mitigate the grief and economic hardship brought upon by it. This is reflective of the gaps in labor migration governance with economic circumstances and a sorry statecraft compounding problems.

Gamble with Giltine

The goddess of in Lithuanian mythology is called Giltine. This deity, often dressed in an ornate dress and flowers, is believed to be the personification of beauty when she so wished. There is, however, yet another trait commonly associated with her — submission. No man or woman are able to resist her calling once she wished them to her presence- even to the point of death.

Not dissimilar is the charm of labor destinations for our migrant workers. Pulled towards by the prospects of a better life, and pushed from by the force of unemployment and poverty into foreign labor, many individuals from across Nepal find themselves trapped in the clutches of exploitative jobs, and less than safe work environments in the dreary sands of the gulf or worse in households of less than decent employers. Many come back with disabilities; many don’t come back at all. With neither a committed safety net from their employers, nor government support from either the destination or home countries, these migrant laborers are forced to trade their shiny dreams of prosperity with a kiss of death from Giltine herself.

And things do not look to be changing. Even as about 17% of the total migrating workforce works in comparatively risky industries (10% in construction, 5% in electro-mechanical technician, and 2% in Manufacturing) (DOFE, 2020), the safety nets for individual and family in case of accidents, or worse death are expedient.

In absence of adequate employment opportunities back at home, and with about NPR 961.05 billion [3] in the national GDP coming from remittances alone, to do away with foreign employment seems an ambitious but impractical approach. But the state of Nepal has large been unable to do better in terms of protecting and improving the experience of its people migrating for labor in other countries.

Sorry Statecraft

From the long list of countries Nepali workers travel to in search of work, Nepal has signed a bilateral labor agreement with only eight countries — Qatar, UAE, Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan and Malaysia. If the government is serious about protecting the lives and livelihoods of its citizens at countries of destination, Nepal needs to seriously consider a thorough rethinking of safety nets and agreements with each labor destination. However, even if there are plans to do this, they remain within the annals of the confusing bureaucracy.

The responsibility of oversight of labor migration falls under the purview on an abundance of institutional bodies- the Foreign Employment Board, Department of Foreign Employment, Department of Consular Support and Ministerial and Parliamentary bodies who would surely claim they are doing all they can. There are dedicated migration beats and reporters present within the majority of media outlets, but the stories we read on the topic are of coffins and corpses, rather than compensations and state collaboration.

For those who have lost a family member abroad, the pain is prolonged by the inability to repatriate the dead body quickly due to the cumbersome process involved. [process] At times it could take months, which only exacerbate their anguish. — The Himalayan Times (Jan, 2021)

Looking to the Future

The Nepal Labour Migration Report, 2020 acknowledges the slew of problems prevalent in the space and makes suggestions of an array of approaches necessary to alleviate the pains of those who have lost their kin in labor destinations. To address the foremost cause of death, that of road accidents, the report says, a focus in labor migrants in awareness about proper nutrition and temperature variability of the destination countries and further investigation of individual incidents.

It also then extrapolates to the need for improvements in the compensation scheme, with a larger emphasis on policies and country-specific programs that prevent such incidences in the future. It also includes a recommendation in widening provisions in caring for the overall health of returning labor migrants in an effort to reduce the social cost of migration.

In mentioning that newer regulation of the labor destinations are wide and largely adequate, the report calls for improved government action in ensuring those regulations are efficiently enforced. Also focused is the increased engagement and further diplomatic dialogue between the GoN and the labor destination countries.

These recommendations merit focus and action from not just the government but an increased advocacy of the same my organizations working in the sector and the media. Not quite to say it is enough, but it’s the least we can do.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.


[1] 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup, The Guardian (Feb 2021) https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022

[2] Nepal Labor Migration Report, 2020 MOLESS https://moless.gov.np/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Migration-Report-2020-English.pdf

[3] Macroeconomic Data, NIBL Capital https://niblcapital.com/insights/macroeconomic-situation-of-nepalese-economy-based-on-annual-data-of-fy-2020-21/

मलेसियाबाट एकैपटक ल्याइयो २४ नेपालीको शव (OnlineKhabar, July 22) https://www.onlinekhabar.com/2021/07/988539

Economic Survey,2077/78 , Ministry of Finance https://redirect.is/t7v3ndk