Protection of Nepali Migrant Workers Now and Hereafter the COVID-19 Pandemic

Authors: Dr. Prakash Bhattarai; Kalpana Rana Magar

Migrant Workers and the Covid-19 Crisis

As per most recent data from the Government of Nepal (GoN), more than 3.2 million Nepali migrants are currently working abroad. Around 2.4 million migrant workers among them, a clear majority, are currently working in either Malaysia or one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Although more than 194 thousand Nepalis involved in foreign work returned to Nepal from 60 countries with the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, thousands are still in several destination countries, while another group of over 50 thousand Nepalis are awaiting opportunities to leave Nepal for foreign employment. It can be projected that thousands more will look to build their fortunes and futures in foreign soil in the coming years.

These flows in migration patterns suggest a strong and growing presence of Nepalese migrant workers in several destination countries across the world, particularly in the GCC countries and Malaysia. Under this context, a stronger, more effective and pointedly worker-friendly foreign labor employment policy, along with a set of appropriate institutional mechanisms and programmatic actions of the GoN, can be considered as a necessary approach to protect the rights of migrant workers and ensure them a dignified living and working conditions in the destination countries. Pandemic-induced restrictions and preventative measures have halted many of the usual daily activities that GoN bodies engage in, which present a unique opportunity to reevaluate and reform existing policies, and to come up with new ones.

Where are the gaps?

Following the surge of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, the Foreign Employment Act of 2007 was considered rather obligatory and pessimistic by many, as it failed to ensure employment security and facilitate safe and dignified return of vulnerable migrant workers in the time of crisis. Thousands of Nepalese migrant workers reported miserable conditions being stranded without necessary health measures and social protections, including job losses of around 280 thousand as well as unexpected, arbitrary deportation of hundreds from Malaysia and the GCC countries. Although the Foreign Employment Act 2007 itself doesn’t directly address or account for irregular and undocumented migrants, anecdotal evidence suggests that these categories of workers remained the most vulnerable during the time of the Covid-19 crisis, and were primarily deprived of getting economic and social benefits provided by the GoN as well as other bodies in the host countries. Reviewing such scenarios suggest that this act was solely designed upon a simple labor demand and supply model, rather than with the intention of being actively protective of ensuring migrant labor rights.

It is not only the Act, but also an ineffective institutional response from the government side to address the humanitarian consequences of COVID-19 has an adverse impact on the lives of Nepali migrant workers. Inadequate planning and preparedness of the Nepal government, lack of sufficient human resources in the Nepali diplomatic missions abroad, inefficient labor attaché, and inefficient inter-ministerial coordination have all contributed to make the Nepali migrant workers’ lives further miserable during the time to COVID-19 crisis. Lack of adequate negotiation with the host country government for addressing the need of migrant workers have further contributed to make their life miserable during the time of COVID-19 crisis and beyond. As a result, thousands of migrant workers were left behind from immediate reparation and return plan along with anxiety and frustrations.

Meanwhile, at home, reintegration and rehabilitation program designed by the government remained less significant in meeting the needs of returnee migrant workers. Though the current fiscal budget of Nepal has prioritized better reintegration of migrant workers at the local level with the creation of self-employment opportunities and decent job, most of the migrant workers are not aware about such government programs. In some cases, government programs are not compatible with the skills and aspirations of returnee migrant workers and thus again forced to rethink of going for foreign employment. In addition to this, lack of broader societal awareness as well as psychological counselling have pushed many returnee migrant workers to face stigma and discriminatory behaviors in the community. It is no surprise that they were treated as the vector of transmission rather than potential human resources beneficial to the national development in the long run. Although the stigma towards migrant workers observed in the beginning weeks of COVID-19 crisis have been decreased significantly, this is yet found prevalent in many communities in one way or another.

Absence of accountable and deliberative institutions have further bridged a wide gap at the operational level for ensuring the human rights and labor rights. There was no coordination, collaboration and consultation with three tiers of government, line ministries, intergovernmental agencies, diplomatic missions, consular offices and relevant stakeholders while developing the repatriation plans and policies to respond the protection of migrant workers during the time of COVID-19 crisis. Most importantly, the Government of Nepal and destination countries are not having a correlational relationship for safeguarding the better labour mobility. Bilateral relations and memorandum of understanding between labor sending and receiving countries are not fully in practice. As a result, all measures and policy guidelines adopted for crisis management have been less effective to take necessary steps for the protection of Nepali migrant workers in the destination, workplace, repatriation, and reintegration processes.

Even though the Foreign Employment Tribunal is established by the Government of Nepal to render justice to the helpless and victimized migrant worker, the real challenge lies ahead is to assist the vulnerable migrant workers to receive compensation and justice on timely manner. Many migrant workers lack awareness regarding the method and process of legal jurisdiction to claim justice and compensation until somebody facilitates them to do so. Likewise, migrant workers with undocumented status who have been the victim of abuse, discrimination, and wage theft in the destination countries are in the need of justice are hesitant to approach justice giving mechanisms due to the fear of deportation and imprisonment. In such circumstance, migrant’s right to access justice becomes more fragile.

Ten months have already passed since the emergence of COVID 19 and it is evident that drastic changes occurred in the labor markets, wherein new worker-rights problems are emerging in various destination countries. The GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and UAE have already reduced workers’ salary without the consent of workers. Similarly, Qatar endorsed new labor laws that allows migrant workers to change jobs without employer permission and set a higher minimum wage for all workers regardless of nationality. Moreover, a new strain of coronavirus is spreading quickly and there is a greater possibility that the country of destination will again enforce lockdown, cut down the working hours or expel a higher number of migrant workers. To what extent the Government of Nepal is aware and prepared to cope with such changing dynamic is unknown. Firstly, there are already 890 thousand migrant workers waiting for their immediate return and the number is further increased due to expiring of labor permits. Every day on average 1,500 workers are running out of contracts. Yet, 149 dead bodies are left to be transported back home. Secondly, after the ease down of lockdown, absence of proactive communication between the Government of Nepal and the country of destinations regarding amendment directly created uncertainty, hassle and mismanagement in labor mobility. In fact, migrant workers will be greatly affected since their cost of migration will be higher if stuck at home or abroad or leave immediately. In such a context, how the Government of Nepal facilitates secure labor migration remains most challenging.


Given the lessons we have stood to learn from the Covid-19 crisis, it is now high time to rethink, revisit, and officially draft a new Foreign Employment Act of Nepal, with better terms and conditions favoring migrant workers in relation to improved living and working conditions in destination countries, the promotion of decent work, the mandates aiming to ensure dignity and justice, employment security, fair recruitment, an social protection at the time of future crises. Instead of focusing pointedly on classical labor economics demand and supply models, the new proposed policy should be developed with rights-based approach, including the guarantee of rescuing and repatriating during crises. To make the new labor migration policy fully functional, priority should be given to multi-stakeholder participation and consultation during the policy formulation as well as monitoring process of the implementation of the policy. Practice of more affluent labor diplomacy, revision of bilateral agreements and Memorandum of Understandings with greater emphasis on the social protection of migrant workers is crucial to make the national migration policy further effective.

Policy changes should be backed up by strengthening institutional mechanism for protecting the rights of migrant workers. To do this, the function of Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security (MOLES) and its associate agencies should be quite effective to ensure the safe and better managed foreign labor migration. Coordination between the MOLES and Nepali diplomatic missions in labor sending countries is another important aspect to be taken into consideration. Strengthen capacity of Nepali diplomatic missions in labor sending countries is so crucial to constantly communicate and negotiate with the host country government as well as companies where Nepali migrant workers are working. Government institution should also create and rethink of systems and mechanisms to formally be in regular touch with intergovernmental organizations, civil society, as well as local recruiting agencies for managing the systemic flow of migrants. Indeed, the current context provides a unique opportunity to revisit the existing labor sending practices and establish strong tracking and monitoring mechanisms for promoting safer and improved foreign labor migration management overall.

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.