The writing had been on the wall. Over the next month and a half, 150,000 Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf and Malaysia could be repatriated. This first batch of homecoming workers will comprise those who were working abroad illegally and those who have lost their jobs because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Host countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have offered time-bound amnesty for illegal workers registering to go back to their home countries. Many Nepali workers are taking advantage of this one-time offer of pardon. For instance, over 3,000 of them in Kuwait have registered for repatriation after the Kuwaiti government granted them amnesty and vowed to rehire them if the corona threat dies down.
Nepal will have a tough time managing these workers. The government says it is working on arranging Covid-19 tests for 150,000 people and on building reliable quarantine facilities for them. But most of these workers are to undergo the unreliable rapid tests. The more reliable PCR test kits are scarce, and it is still unclear where additional test kits will come from. Likewise, the quarantine facilities at the local and provincial levels are without even bare minimum facilities, which is why many folks quarantined there run away. A new spurt of Covid-19 infection is likely if this first batch of returning migrant workers is not managed well. The long-term picture appears bleaker still.
Bar India, there are 1.5 million Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf countries and Malaysia. Many of them will lose their jobs and will be forced to go back to their home countries. Back home, in the economy badly depressed by the corona pandemic, they won’t get many gainful jobs. Even if they get some work, it won’t pay nearly as much as they earned abroad. This sudden income transition will be tough on their families. The government blueprint for creating fresh jobs in agriculture, where people can be immediately employed, is a good start. There is not much time to work out its nitty-gritty. Meanwhile, there could be a minimum income guarantee for all the jobless. As the federal budget for the current fiscal remains mostly unspent, parts of it can be reallocated for things like income guarantee and agriculture modernization. Realistically, with tourism and foreign employment, the two mainstays of Nepali economy, on a downward spiral, things could get progressively harder in the days ahead. But one thing at a time.