Nepal’s labour recruiters went on strike last month for the right to keep on cheating poor migrant workers and make them pay for their visas and tickets. Thousands of workers waiting to board flights to Malaysia and the Gulf were held hostage until the government relented. They agreed to lift the strike but are now using all their political connections to abort the government decision which would have required employers abroad to pay for the ticket and visas of Nepali workers capsule. The agreement between labour recruiters and the government looks like a ploy.
Labour Minister Tek Bahadur Gurung knows he will no longer be in government by the time the three months comes to an end, while the recruiters now have time to lobby for a rollback. Labour recruiters started picketing the office of the Department of Foreign Employment at Tahachal, stopping pro- zero-cost migration agencies from applying for labour permits. After a series of failed negotiations, they accepted the policy on 25 July for three months. But they compelled the government to revise the policy by forming a high-level committee. The committee led by Labour Secretary Surya Prasad Shrestha also has representatives of labour recruiters as its members. The committee will visit Malaysia and the Gulf countries in the coming months, find out if employers are ready to provide free tickets and visas and submit a report within two months. The government will revise the policy if necessary based on the report. Although Labour Minister Gurung is adamant he will not backtrack, there are fears that he will be forced to do so when the Shrestha committee submits its report. Powerful manpower agencies have already convinced Prime Minister Sushil Koirala that the policy will have negative impact on migrant workers and the remittance-driven economy.
Koirala reportedly asked Gurung to not implement the policy, but the minister balked. Koirala then sent instructions in writing to Gurung to implement the policy only after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with destination countries. “On the pretext of signing MoU with destination countries, a pro-poor policy is being aborted,” migration expert Ganesh Gurung told us. Labour recruiters appear determined to force Gurung to withdraw the policy because it will prevent them from squeezing outbound migrant workers. Even before the zero-cost policy was announced, nearly 45 per cent of employers in Malaysia and the Gulf used to bear the cost of migrant workers’ airfare and the visa fee. But Nepali labour recruiters would share this money with their counterparts abroad. Most migrant workers were overcharged Rs 200,000 for airfare, visa fee and insurance. The zero-cost policy allows labour recruiters to charge only up to Rs 20,000 from migrant workers for their service fee, insurance, labour permit cost and contribution to their welfare fund. A labour recruiter told us there is unhealthy competition among manpower agencies to grab job quotas, and some of them go to the extent of persuading Malaysian and Arab employers to give them just quotas and not bear any costs of workers. “In such cases, they just pass on that added cost to the migrant workers,” he says. “Some Nepali labour recruiters have given cuts to Malaysian and Arab middlemen in advance to grab employment quotas. If the zero-cost policy is implemented, they will lose those cuts. That is why they are against it.” Officials at the Department of Foreign Employment also want a cut of the money charged with every worker, and that is the reason there is reluctance in the bureaucracy with the policy. Bal Bahadur Tamang, former Chair of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), says labour recruiters are not against the policy but just want time to be prepared for it. “We could have accepted the policy had the government given us just three months to prepare for it,” he says. Labour recruiters say the zero-cost policy sounds good but accuse Minister Gurung of trying to take advantage of it since he used to run a recruitment company himself, which he has now divested to his relatives. NAFEA’s Kumud Khanal says, “His sole purpose is to make policy that will help companies belonging to his relatives.” According to Khanal, Gurung received 2,500 free ticket-visa job quotas and distributed them among his relatives in January 2015.
In June, he received an additional 2,500 free ticket-visa quotas from a Malaysian company. Khanal alleges that a Bangladeshi agent whose company is lobbying with the Nepal government to introduce the biometric system for migrant workers is providing free ticket-visa quotas to manpower companies close to Gurung. Labour recruiters say those manpower companies that can grab free ticket-visa job quotas will benefit from the new policy, and most of these companies are indirectly owned by Gurung. It is possible that Gurung would have benefited, but there is no denying that the zero-cost policy would have ended exploitation of Nepali migrant workers. Advocate Som Luintel, who advocates on behalf of migrant workers says: “Whatever the truth, the new policy is in favour of migrant workers but manpower agencies have the political clout to sabotage it.”