By Gaurav KC
Nepal is a labour rich country, which supplies thousands of unskilled and semiskilled workers to global cities. Post 1990, Nepali labourers have migrated to different destinations, contributing to the formation of global mega cities. Looking at cities in the Arab Gulf allows for an excellent understanding of the growth of these mega cities. Wealth accumulation has stimulated large flows of skilled westerners and unskilled workers from countries like ours. Nepali labourers along with other foreign workers are a major impetus in the creation of today’s global mega cities in the gulf. Factories, construction sites, hotels and the domestic sector are where Nepali migrant workers— whose labour is cheap in the eyes of employers—conglomerate.
Despite important contributions to their countries of origin and destination, they continue to encounter inhuman maladies. The proactive adaptation of a win-win approach by all stakeholders can create a favorable environment for Nepal to benefit from this era of global exchange, as a labour supplying country.
Anthropologist Vera N. remarks that “South Asian migrant experiences have been shown to be richly permeated by experiences of discrimination, both by Gulf citizens and Western expatriates”. Cases of Nepali labourers being poorly paid, ill treated, and working in dangerous conditions also have been widely covered by Nepali dailies and the subject of several documentaries and research work. On the flip side, better income opportunities for Nepali migrants, contribution to the Nepali remittance economy and the subsequent improved lifestyles of migrant workers’ family members are the positive aspects of Nepali labour migration.
In this context, a common question among Nepalis is whether Nepal as a nation can benefit from this era of labour mobility, whereby the positive far outweighs the negative. To answer this question, we should not understand migration and its associated consequences as the automatic result of particular policies, and simply point fingers at governments alone. Rather, we should attempt to understand the dynamics of this very complex process consisting of a variety of agents including the state, the employer, the manpower agencies, the middle men who introduce migrants to the agencies, and humanitarian organizations dealing with migration issues.
It is not necessary that direct benefit to all these stake holders shrink with a consorted effort towards minimizing hardships faced by contracted labour migrants from Nepal.
Beginning with the role humanitarian organizations can play, and with the assumption that every such agency’s ultimate objective is to make their work obsolete, there are several avenues through which humanitarian work can assist in reducing hardships faced by migrant labourers. For example, creation of an easily accessible space whereby potential migrants can learn about this kind of labour and prepare themselves for the obstacles they may face, is most necessary.
While pursuing personal research on the topic, I came across a letter sent by a migrant to his family where the migrant mentions that upon returning to Nepal, he will “cut the middle man into pieces.” This is a feeling commonly shared by Nepali labour migrants. The middle man, known as Dalal, is responsible for finding potential and often rural migrant workers and putting them in touch with various opportunities abroad in return for a handsome commission. In this regard, there is an urgency to educate these middle men about the potential risk-free and dignified earning that can be made though the dissemination of authentic information and clear explanation of choices available.
The manpower agencies that are actually sending labourers abroad should focus on practicing honesty and transparency. Recruitment is a booming industry, and such agencies can negotiate with their clients for better wages for the labourers, without increasing the service charges to be paid by the potential labourer. Rather than exaggerating available opportunities, truthful dissemination of information will work in their benefit in the long run. Sound orientation for the workers before departure is a must in this process. With such simple structural changes, they can slowly distance themselves from their identities, which are often seen as fraudulent by many. They can turn into sincere service providers.
The employers on the other hand, can benefit by simply adopting the principles of behavioral management. They have to work towards creating a safe working environment for employees and motivating them, which will in turn amount to an increment in productivity. They must abide by international labour laws when deciding wage structures and what consists of a healthy work environment for their employees. The international humanitarian organization also has a role here in putting pressure on host governments and employing companies to comply with international laws.
Likewise, the Nepali state can do a lot in improving the situation of labour migrants and the country’s economy. Perhaps its most crucial role has to be in equipping itself with accurate and up-to-date information on the number and whereabouts of Nepali migrant workers. The state should put a priority on identifying and closing illegal labour migration channels, as migrants who pass through such channels tend to be most vulnerable to exploitation. The developing of labour friendly policies and effective mechanisms to ensure activities in accordance to the policies is also necessary. The state should be in a position whereby it holds strong bargaining power with labour receiving countries as in the cases of India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Diplomatic state mechanisms in labour also need to be active in looking after its populace in a foreign country. Nepali labour migrants often complain about the lack of efficiency of their embassies in terms of functioning. And most importantly, rather than letting remittance money be used for material gain alone and burn like coal; the state should encourage entrepreneurship among returnees.
[KC teaches Sociology/ Anthropology at Orbit International College and researches migration issues. The same article can also be found in ekantipur website.]