The Voiceless Migrant Workers of Nepal

Author: Raunak Mainali

An Introduction to the Issue

Democratic elections are occasionally determined by extremely tight races where the cliché maxim “every vote counts” finds significant relevance. The world watched in November 2000 as the US Democratic candidate Al Gore conceded the presidential elections to Republican rival George W. Bush by the smallest of margins. When the dust cleared, Bush had won the state of Florida by a mere 537 votes allowing him to surpass the 270 electoral votes and win his first term of presidency. In a state with a population of around 15 million (in 2000), only 537 votes separated the winner. There are many other examples of elections with close results which reiterates the importance of the individual.

537 votes decided the president of the USA, what can four million votes achieve in Nepal? This is the estimated amount of Nepali migrant workers who have found employment abroad mainly in Gulf countries and Malaysia. The Department of Foreign Employment has stated that in the decade following from 2008/09 they issued over 4 million labour approvals to Nepali workers. This total does not account for those undocumented workers in India who capitalize on the friendly border between the nations. The real number of Nepali migrant workers surpasses 4 million . The economic importance of migrant workers is well known to the Nepali public. The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security (MOLESS) have stated that the remittances from migrant workers totaled to 8.79 billion USD in 2018/19. Despite contributing to a significant chunk of the population and the GDP of the country, migrant workers remain politically ostracized.

Nepal does not have a dedicated external voting system such as a mail in ballot or online voting. This means that those living abroad are not able to exercise their democratic duty as it is only possible to physically vote in-person. The consequences of this are dire. Major political parties do not need to pander to the migrant workers despite their large numbers as they simply do not have a voice whilst they are abroad. This has resulted in poor regulation of manpower companies, asymmetrical labour deals with foreign countries and very little protection and rights for workers. These conditions are unlikely to improve as workers are unable to vote for their interests.

This issue has been acknowledged and promises of actions were made. In 2018, the Supreme Court issued a directive ordering the government to draft a law that would allow Nepalis abroad to vote. However very little progress has been made in this regard. Writing for the Record, Anurag Devkota states that the a reason for stagnation in the creation of an external voting system is lack of political will. There is no interest from the major parties in the creation of an external voting system. Many have brokered alliances with manpower companies who send migrant workers abroad and often possess a poor track record in terms of migrant worker’s rights.

Is there a solution?

The obvious answer may be an online voting system. However, the feasibility of this is debatable. The Election Commission downplayed the proposal of an online voting mechanism by citing the lack of technological competency on behalf of workers. Not only is this an insult to the workers who are more than capable of voting through this medium, the main difficulty in online voting is security. An online voting system can be easily manipulated as seen in Switzerland, Australia and Estonia resulting in the undermining of results. A secure online system would be an ideal solution as the use of internet is almost universal.

Proxy voting is an alternative that would enable absentee voting. By allowing those abroad to delegate their vote to another individual, workers would be able to participate in elections. Unfortunately, proxy voting has a notorious past in Nepal. In 2017 during the first phase of federal parliament and provincial assembly elections, the Election Commission states that proxy voting was widely abused. The Kathmandu Post reports that people claimed to have voted as much as 120 times and individuals found out that someone had voted on their behalf without their knowledge or consent. Discouraging as it is, election fraud is not limited to proxy voting in Nepal. Voting manipulation is considered prevalent in the domain, and therefore ,a strengthening of general voting mechanisms to minimize exploitation is of paramount importance. It is unfair to suppress the voice of millions of migrant workers by denying proxy voting for a problem that is inherent in Nepali society. The steps necessary to create free and fair elections must be taken at whatever cost if Nepal wants to uphold the 2015 constitution and present itself as a liberal-democratic society.

Mail in voting is the preferred mode of absentee voting in many nations. For example, In New Zealand those who are abroad can register to vote online using their passport or other means of identification. You can then download the voting form online and cast your ballot. Following this, the ballot can be returned by uploading it online, by fax or by mailing to any overseas voting place. This system can be exported to empower migrant workers with their right to vote. Whilst we have discussed the issues surrounding online voting submissions, fax and mail are reliable alternatives. Those living abroad would more than likely have access to a fax machine or a reliable postal system. With this they can send their ballots directly to the Nepali embassy or Kathmandu.

With elections on the horizon, it does not make sense for a nation that claims to be democratic to disenfranchise millions of voters. Not only is it their right to vote, migrant workers are a group that face constant abuse and hardship. Possessing the right to vote, workers would force mainstream parties to create policies that are more favourable to them, therefore improving their conditions. Pragmatic and creative solutions must be put forward to enable migrant workers to vote and strengthen democracy in Nepal.

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.