Migrant workers must not be left behind
Migrant workers have contributed to keeping the economy afloat. Now it's time for the government to do its part.
Even as Nepal’s government takes steps to protect people against the spread of COVID-19 inside the country, it has almost forgotten those living outside—the millions of migrant workers, toiling away in the Gulf, Malaysia and other countries. At the best of times, their conditions are precarious.
It isn’t clear whether they will be able to return to Nepal any time soon, or if they will remain stranded in the countries where they are employed, away from their families. During this time, as countries introduce ‘lock-down’ measures, will the workers be able to extend their expiring visas, will they have contracts to keep them in employment, and, crucially, will they have the means to support themselves? Nepal’s migrant workers are often prized as a source of remittances, which account for as much as a quarter of the country’s GDP. Now, they are at risk of being abandoned.
Instead of proactively reaching out to Nepali migrant workers, the government seems to have limited itself to a weak information-sharing role. Last month, the foreign minister and the labour minister instructed Nepali missions in the Gulf to ‘remain in regular contact with Nepali nationals’, advising them to stay safe and take precautions, following the health protocols outlined by their host governments. They are not being supported as they contend with the prospect of contract terminations, delays or non-payments of salaries, forced unpaid leave, or being forced to work in hazardous conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus.
There was a glimpse of the disproportionate impact of the crisis on migrant workers last month when Nepali media reported that hundreds of Nepali migrant workers were rounded up, detained and deported by the Qatari authorities. The legal basis for their deportation remains unclear. Media reports suggest they were deported for breaching government restrictions enacted ostensibly to contain the spread of COVID-19, but workers complain they were never made aware of these restrictions. Many of them shared details about the inhumane treatment they endured during detention and deportation.
There are also reports of hundreds of Nepali migrant workers being stranded at the border points between India and Nepal, without food and shelter. Some workers even risked their lives trying to enter the country by swimming across the Mahakali river.
For those who remain in their host countries, the situation remains scarcely comforting. Amnesty International has extensively documented the longstanding plight of Nepali migrant workers, including the appalling living conditions they endure—with as many as eight or more people squeezed into a single room. The living premises also lack adequate sanitation and facilities for running water. In such conditions, social distancing is impossible and maintaining adequate standards of hygiene in order to protect themselves from COVID-19 is challenging.
With people retreating into their homes to isolate themselves, the situation for women who work as domestic workers is of particular concern. In such conditions, domestic workers risk finding themselves fulfilling the additional role of caregivers. They are at risk of being overworked, attending to families all day; likely exacerbating the exploitation that many face. Quarantines and ‘lockdowns’ imposed by governments will also mean that the few domestic workers, who were earlier able to leave their homes and meet friends once a week, will remain confined and will not be able to seek the help and support they may need. There are also concerns that in these situations, domestic workers will be denied their one day of rest per week. Undocumented workers are also at risk, finding themselves without the protection of either the host government or their own, and maybe reluctant to seek medical care for fear of detention.
The potential loss of jobs and income not only affects the migrant workers, who have often had to take out loans with exorbitant interest rates as high as 50 per cent to secure themselves jobs abroad, this will also have repercussions back home. There are millions of people in Nepal who depend upon them for their livelihoods. Those migrant workers who have been deported or otherwise forced to return to Nepal risk finding themselves with huge debts which could lead to situations of debt bondage.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must take proactive measures to reach out to all migrant workers through the respective Nepali missions in host countries. They should establish whether they are safe, and have the essentials they need at this time, including water, food and adequate accommodation, as well as preventative measures to protect themselves from the risk of infection at work and accommodation. They must also provide them with accurate and evidence-based information about COVID-19, the risks to them, and how they can access health facilities if they need to. The Nepali authorities must also call on host governments to include migrant workers in their responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Under international human rights law, states have an obligation to uphold the human rights of all individuals within their jurisdictions.
Nepal’s authorities should also use diplomatic channels to ensure host governments protect the rights of migrant workers. This includes obtaining assurances that migrant workers will not be penalised if their visas expire during the crisis and they are unable to extend them or return to Nepal. They should also seek assurances that migrant workers’ contracts are not arbitrarily and abruptly terminated, their right to an adequate standard of living and social security is protected, and there are no arbitrary deportations.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that, in the absence of a coordinated multilateral response, as many as 25 million jobs could be lost globally amid the COVID-19 crisis. Other estimates are much higher. In this context, it is important that Nepal’s authorities carry out their own assessment of the potential impact on migrant workers—their jobs and their health. They need to develop a plan to address their long-term needs should they find themselves without the livelihoods they and their families depend upon.
As Nepal grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak, some quarters of the government might be inclined to think that this pandemic is a national crisis of unprecedented scale, limiting what the government can do. But the nature of the crisis is precisely why Nepal must be more determined to protect their migrant workers, who are among the most vulnerable and marginalised in their host countries. Be it during the decade long armed conflict, or during the devastating 2015 earthquake, migrant workers have toiled hard in difficult environments to contribute to keeping the economy of the country afloat by sending hundreds of billions of rupees home. This time, they are in distress, and they need their government to do everything.