Executive Summary

Rapid impact assessment report - COVID-19 and Nepali labour migrants, impacts and responses

Executive Summary of the the assessment on the findings, challenges and recommendations on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Nepali migrant workers.

Analysis | 06 August 2020
Contact(s): Mr Basanta Kumar Karki, National Project Coordinator
This is the summary of the Rapid Impact Assessment Report - COVID-19 and Nepali labour migrants, impacts and responses. The study was conducted by Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM), Social Science Baha (SCB) with the support of ILO Country Office for Nepal through DFID funded Skills for Employment Programme (SEP).

The pandemic caused by the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has had enormous repercussions as a global health and safety risk and it has also reshaped the socio-economic and political landscapes. The highly infectious disease has severely affected the supply chain of goods and services, affecting workers’ incomes and livelihoods the world over. Of particular concern is the situation of transnational migrant workers who have found themselves in a middle of a pandemic in foreign countries, sometimes out of work and also living in the most dangerous conditions.

As a country dependent on labour migration for a large number of its working-age population and which depends heavily on remittances from workers abroad to keep its economy afloat, the pandemic is expected to have long-term impacts on Nepal. In this context, this study aims to understand how COVID-19 has affected Nepali migrant workers, what the numbers are, how they have been coping under the circumstances, and the roles of various governing institutions in dealing with the ever-evolving situation.

Using information available in the public sphere and relying heavily on media reports, and also supplemented by select interviews and discussions around various stakeholder consultations, the assessment has identified the following key findings.

Nepalis in foreign employment

Nepalis have been migrating primarily to India, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Malaysia for employment in recent years. Data from the 24 months prior to the lockdown imposed in Nepal and most destination countries in the month of March 2020 show more than 1 million labour permits issued by the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) for work in countries other than India while just over 35,000 workers had gone to South Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS) since 2015. Another source, the 2017/18 Nepal Labour Force Survey (NLFS), estimates that there are 2.8 million Nepalis who had migrated abroad for work (of whom only 5 per cent were women). The highest number of almost 1 million were in India.

According to DoFE, the highest number of labour permits issued in fiscal years 2017/18 and 2018/19 and in the first eight months of 2019/20 were to migrants from Province 2. The NLFS shows that for migrants from Provinces 1, 2, Bagmati and Gandaki, the GCC countries are the most popular destination whereas for those from Province 5, Karnali and Sudurpaschim, it is India, with more than 87 per cent of labour migrants from Sudurpaschim in India. According to the NLFS, Nepalis in foreign employment belong mostly to the unskilled and semi-skilled categories.

Socio-economic impacts of COVID-19

A significant number of Nepali migrants have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 and many have also been forced to either go on unpaid leave or return home before their contract period is over. It is estimated that some 20 per cent of the Nepalis abroad are at risk of being unemployed. Workers have not received their wages and other benefits either, and are deprived of access to basic services, including health facilities, while working and living at the risk of infection.

Due to loss of income, a significant number of migrant households in Nepal are already facing and are likely to face a rise in their debt burden as well shortage of food. Nepal’s GDP growth rate is expected to drop in 2020 due to the reduction of remittance inflow by 14 per cent along with disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. There have already been signs of this even in the period under review, with remittances going down by half in mid-March to mid-April in the current year compared to the same time period the year before.

Government response

The pandemic has forced the Government of Nepali government to take action to control the spread of the virus. These measures include the imposition of nationwide lockdowns and closure of all land borders after 24 March, with the lockdown lifted only on 15 June. All national and international flights as well as long-haul land transportation were suspended on 22 March and 23 March, respectively. In the interim, the government made arrangements to contain and manage the coronavirus through the establishment of quarantine shelters, expanded testing, purchase of medical supplies, etc.

The Nepali government’s role in destination countries has been to engage with the respective governments to address wide-ranging concerns regarding Nepali workers’ treatment, visa and labour permit issues, negotiating labour deals, and repatriation of stranded workers. Nepali embassies have played a key role in carrying out testing and treatment of infected Nepalis, collecting data, and assisting citizens abroad. The government has also been working with various Non-Resident Nepali Associations (NRNAs), recruitment agencies, and other groups in the repatriation process. However, the diplomatic missions have been stymied by lack of institutional capacity and resources, absence of clear directions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suspension of regular flights, lack of adequate and timely data, and difficulty of reaching all Nepali migrants in the destination countries.

Repatriation and return

Safe and dignified repatriation and return of Nepali migrant workers has been a key challenge even since the outbreak of COVID-19. The Foreign Employment Board (FEB) has estimated that there are at least 127,000 migrant workers in need of immediate repatriation from the seven major destination countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Malaysia. The FEB also estimates there are 407,000 expected returnees from 37 different countries. The apex government body formed to tackle the pandemic, the COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC), has estimated that including those in India, there are 1.3 million Nepalis who want to return home. Given the staggering numbers involved and the equally huge logistical scale of repatriating such a large number, only around 25,000 has been proposed to be rescued and repatriated by air by mid-June 2020. The government has also designated 20 land border entry points through which it is estimated that 500,000 Nepalis will return from India.

However, the government’s efforts have been mired in controversies and subjected to criticism. First, the number of Nepali migrants requiring immediate repatriation and rescue has been underestimated mainly because of lack of concrete information on how many Nepali workers there are in the different destination countries. The number of Nepalis returning from India over the land border was much higher than expected, creating challenges in managing them in quarantine centres. The quarantine facilities set up for them as well as those coming from other destination countries are neither in line with the WHO guidelines or the standards set by the Nepali government. Expensive air fares that returnees were charged led to strong opposition from the returnees themselves, resulting in an interim order from the Supreme Court to utilise the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund for the repatriation of migrant workers. Delays and cancellations of scheduled flights and lack of proper direction on testing of returnees in destination countries prior to return have highlighted the Nepali government’s chaotic handling of the rescue and repatriation process.

Compensation and legal remedy

With the onset of the pandemic, Nepali migrant workers have also been subjected to various forms of exploitation, forced termination of contracts, expulsion from employment, deprivation of basic services, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, stigmatisation, and discrimination. Due to inadequate attention given to the documentation of these issues that were in violation of their labour rights, helping workers get compensation or providing them with other forms of help to seek access to justice will remain challenging and complicated in the days to come.

Looking forward

Based on the findings, the study calls upon urgent action on a number of area to address the immediate concerns of migrant workers while also looking somewhat into the future.

Protecting Nepali Migrants and Their Rights

The Nepali government should engage with the governments of destination countries as well as employing companies to ensure the protection of the human and labour rights of migrant workers, especially of those who have migrated through irregular channels.

Every effort should be made to ensure that the COVID-19 responses in destination countries facilitate Nepali migrant workers’ free, easy and timely access to health services, including screening, testing and treatment. Such access should be guaranteed without regard to their legal standing or consideration of their health insurance coverage, and without any fear of legal action due to their visa status.

Diplomatic missions in destination countries should monitor workplaces and accommodation facilities of Nepali migrant workers to ensure that these are safe and hygienic in accordance with the health and safety guidelines provided by the WHO.

Information and communication

Correct and timely information has to be provided to migrants who continue with their employment abroad as well as to those waiting to return. Information about the government’s plan and policies on repatriation, holding and quarantine centres, and requirements during quarantine, among others, need to be provided to everyone. Multiple channels and methods that are accessible by as many people as possible should be employed to disseminate such information.

Upon their return to Nepal, migrant workers should also be provided with adequate information about government policies related to reintegration and employment opportunities available nationally as well as in their provinces and home municipalities.

Repatriation and return

States have international obligations to respect the right of migrants to return home and reunite with their families. Both the Government of Nepal and the governments in destination countries have to work together to ensure that such rights are guaranteed.

It is important to ensure that repatriation of Nepali migrant workers in destination countries follows an impartial criteria based on their vulnerabilities, and the return flights do not result in additional financial burdens on them.

Repatriation of the bodies of deceased Nepalis should be given a priority. In those cases where the bodies need to be disposed of in destination countries, it should be done in full coordination with and concurrence of the families of the deceased.

For successful repatriation as well as social and economic integration, there is an urgent need for government agencies to work in partnership with migrant workers’ organisations, trade unions, business communities and international organisations.

Prevent and mitigate stigmatisation

It is crucial to dispel false information and spread awareness to prevent stigmatisation and ill-treatments of migrants and their families after their return to Nepal. Local governments in collaboration with NGOs, political and community leaders and the media can work to inform and make people aware about such practices.

Legal remedies

Migrant workers have to be provided with the option of seeking legal remedies both in destination countries and Nepal due to the circumstances in which they would have returned. The Nepali government should proactively investigate, identify and engage with the recruitment agencies that facilitated their employment to ensure that migrants are getting the necessary legal support.

The government should work through diplomatic missions to constantly engage in finding a resolution to the various problems faced by migrant workers, including unpaid salaries, job evictions, and forced deportations.

The government needs to develop a database working with relevant organisations to record the grievances of migrant workers in order to be able to effectively address their complaints and claims for compensation when the time comes.

Economic support

While the immediate response strategies need to focus on the protection as well as safe and dignified return of Nepali workers abroad, the mid- and long-term plans in all tiers of governments, as reflected in the government’s policies and programmes for 2020/21, should be creation of jobs, including through enterprise development and self-employment, so that all working-age individuals, including returnees, have the option of not having to migrate abroad to earn their livelihoods.

More data and knowledge

There is a need for concrete, updated and disaggregated data on migrants and returnees in order to ensure policies and plans of both the government and non-government sector are based on evidence. It is the responsibility of the government to gather such information and make it public periodically to inform such policy-making. Further studies also need to be carried out to get a better sense of the various short- and long-term socio-economic and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrants and their families, including understanding what their vulnerabilities and needs are.