Nepalis have been venturing abroad in search of work since the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli. Joining the British Army became a lucrative source of income for some Nepalis after the UK started recruiting people from ‘martial races’ to do the fighting on its behalf. This trend continues to this day. Those who couldn’t enlist with the British Army started packing their bags in search of work in India, a trend especially evident in western Nepal. What was an outbound trickle has now turned into a torrent.
Most Nepali migrant workers still go to India. According to informal estimates, 6 to 10 million Nepalis are living and working in India. Migration to countries other than India is a more recent phenomenon. (But as Nepalis don’t need permits to work in India, Nepal does not consider it a labor-importing country.) The trend of going to Gulf countries started with the 1990 political change, when Nepal opened up to the outside world. In the past decade, around 3.5 million Nepalis have left to work in various Gulf and some other countries.
Most of these workers are unskilled and do menial jobs, which still pay more than what they would get for similar jobs in Nepal. Among the top Nepali labor importing countries are Malaysia (700,000 workers) and Saudi Arabia (400,000). There have been many reports of exploitation and even deaths of Nepali workers abroad, as the jobs they land are often different and more difficult than the ones stipulated in official papers. Yet labor diplomacy to better look after the wellbeing of its citizens toiling abroad has never been a government priority.
Many reckon a change to the pattern of Nepali labor migration is urgently needed. Former Nepali ambassador to Qatar Surya Nath Mishra says time has come to explore job markets for highly skilled workers such as engineers, nurses, and doctors. “Our current focus is on sending unskilled manpower. Around 97 percent of Nepali migrant workers are unskilled,” he says. Why can’t we better train our people and send them to do higher-level jobs, he asks?
Such a shift has also become necessary as unskilled labor migration, and the national economy it sustains, can be disrupted at any time, due to multiple factors outside Nepal’s control. It would be wonderful if Nepal could employ these people for its own development. But that’s another story altogether.
Risks abound as globalization scatters Nepali migrant workers
The Gulf and other countries that host a large number of Nepali youths are apparently not a big priority. Unlike previous governments, the Oli-led government may have adopted a policy of looking beyond India and China, but there has been no significant change in its labor diplomacy. Besides the Gulf countries, there are thousands of Nepali workers in South Korea and Malaysia, but bilateral engagements with the two countries are minimal.
The first priority of Nepal’s foreign policy, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has always been its immediate neighbors India and China.
The second, third and fourth priorities are its extended neighborhood, development partners or major powers, and destination countries for overseas employment, respectively.
The last group is comprised of the Gulf and other countries that host a large number of Nepali youths, and which apparently are not a big priority. Unlike previous governments, the Oli-led government may have adopted a policy of looking beyond India and China, but there has been no significant change in its labor diplomacy.
Besides the Gulf countries, there are thousands of Nepali workers in South Korea and Malaysia, but bilateral engagements with the two countries are minimal. While the government is reaching out to more and more countries to attract investment and technology, South Korea and Malaysia do not figure prominently in Nepal’s foreign policy.
The number of Nepali youths going abroad for work is increasing every year. But numerous issues—ranging from cheating in the home country to exploitation in the destination countries—render overseas employment problematic. The issue of female housemaids is arguably even more complex.
“Nepal needs to be cognizant of the fact that the global economic slowdown and a reduction in major infrastructure projects will reduce the demand for manpower and, in turn, remittances,” says Ramesh Nath Pandey, who closely worked with these countries as Nepal’s foreign minister in the early 2000s. As ruling parties seek big investment from big countries, they pay less attention to remittances, which in recent years have been the backbone of Nepal’s economy—contributing 26 percent to the national GDP.
136 countries now
“By the early 2000s, Nepali migrant laborers started going in large numbers to Qatar and the UAE, where a lot of construction work had started, resulting in huge demand for able manpower,” Pandey recalls. The current Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was the Crown Prince when Pandey visited Doha as Nepal’s foreign minister in 2005.
“I apprised him of the sincerity and excellent work ethics of Nepalis and told him about the need for a government-to-government labor agreement,” Pandey recalls. The Department of Foreign Employment issues labor permits for 136 countries. Between July 2018 and July 2019, as many as 476,705 males and 32,123 females received a permit to work abroad. In the past decade, more than 3.5 million labor permits were issued.
An instance of Nepal’s lackadaisical approach to labor diplomacy is the vacant ambassadorial position in South Korea, which hosts 40,000 Nepali migrant workers. A related problem is the flawed selection process for ambassadors. Often, ambassadors are selected based not on their expertise or experience, but partisan loyalty.
In some cases, Nepali ambassadors have also caused controversy. For example, Maya Kumari Sharma, then ambassador to Qatar, was recalled in 2013 for her remark that the Gulf state was an open jail, alluding to the plight of Nepali migrant workers there. The ambassadorial position in the Nepali embassy in Doha remained vacant from 2013 to 2017. Observers highlight the need for a foreign policy that gives due priority to labor migration. They suggest that instead of merely issuing work permits for unskilled laborers, Nepal needs to analyze the vision of destination countries, the technologies they are adopting, and the kind of manpower they need, which will give us a better bargaining position.
Former Nepali ambassador to Qatar, Surya Nath Mishra, reckons it is about time the government explored job markets for highly skilled workers such as engineers, nurses, and doctors. “We are just focusing on sending unskilled manpower. As many as 97 percent of Nepali migrant workers are unskilled,” he says.
Mishra adds that migrant workers are facing a lot of problems, and most often the source of these problems is in Nepal. He points to the unholy nexus between the Foreign Employment Board and ‘manpower’ agencies, which facilitates the sending of laborers in illegal ways. As a result, workers face problems when they reach destination countries. “Things will not improve until labor is made a major plank of our economic diplomacy,” he suggests.
Nine most popular destinations for Nepali migrant workers
Nepal and Malaysia established diplomatic relations on 1 January 1960. At present, an estimated 700,000 Nepalis are working there. There are also prospects of Foreign Direct Investment from Malaysia to Nepal. “Malaysian business companies are investing in the areas of telecommunication, tourism, education, training, trading, and services sector,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another area of cooperation between the two countries is tourism. In 2018, over 23,000 Malaysian nationals visited Nepal.
In light of the multiple reports on the problems Nepali migrant workers face in Malaysia, the two countries are working to reform the recruitment process.
Nepal and Saudi Arabia formally established diplomatic relations on 15 March 1977. Around 400,000 Nepali nationals have been working in Saudi Arabia, the highest among Gulf countries. There used to be high-level visits between the two countries during the Panchayat era. Nepal’s engagement with Saudi Arabia increased substantially when we started sending laborers a decade ago.
According to official data, the volume of trade between the two countries is about $100 million. Another possible area of cooperation is tourism. From 2017, a direct flight has been connecting Kathmandu with Dammam.
Nepal and Qatar established diplomatic relations on 21 January 1977. Qatar currently hosts nearly 365,000 Nepali migrant workers, mostly in services and construction sectors. The prospect of employment in Qatar is ever-growing due to the massive infrastructure-building for the FIFA World Cup 2022. There have been concerns about the exploitation of Nepali workers.
Nepal and the UAE established diplomatic relations on 22 January 1977. About 250,000 Nepali migrant workers have been working in the UAE, mostly in the fields of security, transport, sales, hospitality, construction, and cleaning. There are frequent bilateral visits between the two countries, which signed an MoU on Recruitment, Employment and Repatriation of Workers on 14 June 2019. The MoU has established a framework for transparent recruitment, ethical employment, and safe repatriation of Nepali migrant workers, and replaced the 2007 MoU.
Nepal and Kuwait established diplomatic relations on 25 February 1972, but Nepal opened an embassy in Kuwait only in 2010. Kuwait’s ambassador in New Delhi is accredited to Kathmandu. There are around 70,000 Nepali workers in Kuwait, 40 percent of them women.
Diplomatic relations between Nepal and the Republic of Korea (RoK) was established on 15 May 1974. There are around 40,000 Nepali workers employed in the ROK. While South Korea opened its embassy in Kathmandu in 1974, Nepal established its own in Seoul only in 2007.
Nepal and the RoK reached an agreement on recruiting Nepali workers under the Employment Permit System (EPS) in 2007. Nepal’s participation in the EPS system has been mutually rewarding for both countries. Nepal-South Korea cooperation encompasses the areas of health, women empowerment, disaster recovery, poverty alleviation, and education, among others.
Nepal and the Kingdom of Bahrain established diplomatic relations on 13 January 1977. There are about 25,000 Nepali nationals in Bahrain. Of late, Bahrain has become one of the most preferred destinations for jobs for Nepali workers.
Nepal and Oman established diplomatic relations on 21 January 1977. The flow of Nepalis to Oman is steadily increasing; there are now around 20,000 of them.
Diplomatic relations between Nepal and the State of Israel were established on 1 June 1960. Israel opened its embassy in Kathmandu in March 1961. Currently, around 3,000 Nepali nationals are employed in Israel, which has become one of the favorite destinations for Nepalis, particularly female workers. Israel has proposed recruitment of Nepali caregivers through a G2G process.