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Meena Poudel: Migrant Worker Welfare and Remittances Investment Blueprint of Nepal

When we talk about remittances, we should go beyond the financial definition. Migrants learn new skills, gain cultural knowledge, enhance technical skills, become aware about rights and welfare of migrants and gain confidence to deal with life challenges while dealing with a complex and competitive labor market. -Editor

Meena Poudel: Migrant Worker Welfare and Remittances Investment Blueprint of Nepal

Meena Poudel is a sociologist who has a long and committed history of development works, research and feminist activism on issues affecting lives of socially excluded and politically marginalized groups in Nepal and other parts of the south, southeast and central Asia, western Europe, and North Africa. She has worked for various national and international organizations including Oxfam GB, USAID, UN systems and academia. She is also the first Nepali woman to head an international organization in Nepal—Oxfam.

Poudel did her PhD from UK’s Newcastle University and has worked as a senior visiting research fellow with Newcastle University for several years. In recent years she has been engaging more on exploring various aspects of the lives of women, men and children vulnerable to and experienced migration in the global south in her capacity as member of the global advisory board of Migration Development and Equality, a large and multiyear academic research project funded by the British government. She has written widely on these issues that include a single-authored book, “Dealing with Hidden Issues: Social Rejection Experienced by Trafficked Women in Nepal”, which has been published in six different languages.

According to Poudel, Nepal’s foreign policy has scope of political and business diplomacy but lacks labor diplomacy. And one way to respond to challenges faced by migrants is to have an integrated migration policy that includes labor diplomacy and the contextual role of embassies.


Migration in Nepali context 

Migration, labor migration in particular, has been an important factor supporting the growth and development of Nepal and providing much needed employment opportunities for young Nepali unemployed youths in global labor markets of more than 150 countries. Organized labor migration began between Nepal and India since the British colonial regime in India started recruiting Nepali youths in their armies which was expanded for ordinary Nepali after having a friendship treaty in 1950. Nepal adopted liberal economic policy in late 1980 and changed the political system in 1990 to a liberal democracy. Since then migration for foreign employment has gained momentum in a more organized way and remittances became a part of the national economy.  

Data and research

The Government of Nepal has kept data on labor migration since 2008 only. Although currently about 6.5m workers are in foreign employment, this official data published by the Ministry of Labor does not count migrants working in India due to absence of a migration regulatory mechanism in place between two countries. In addition, migrants who leave the country without having a work permit from the government but following informal channels including human smuggler, traffickers and also man power companies taking workers out of the country without following government mechanisms are also not included in this official data. Various researches indicate that millions of Nepali youths, predominantly men, are working in India alone and tens of thousands are in other countries around the world who migrated for employment following informal, trafficking and smuggling routes. Thus, available data from the government is incomplete.

Migration and development nexus

Nepal’s traditional foundation of economy has gradually been shifting from agriculture to a service sector which, arguably, is dependent on remittances generated by Nepali migrants working abroad. So migration is a key pillar of Nepal’s development resources from family to national budget. Migration is an intrinsic part of broader processes of development. More clearly, migration generally and labor migration in particular contributes significantly to human development, shared prosperity, and address poverty. Poverty in the context of migration goes beyond traditional understanding of poverty that is predominantly a financial aspect. But migration and development discourse includes broader social change, cultural transformation and political awareness for both the countries of origin from where migrants come from and destinations of destination where migrants are employed for. 

When we talk about remittances, we should go beyond the financial definition of remittances. Migrants learn new skills, gain cultural knowledge, enhance technical skills, become aware about rights and welfare of migrants and gain confidence to deal with life challenges while dealing with a complex and competitive labor market. These are social capital one brings back home and apply in post migration journey and contribute to broader social change.

Integrated migration policy framework

Nepal is a remittances dependent economy but lacks migration policy. Nepal’s current policy framework to govern migration by foreign employment act and host of institutions, being coordinated by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security (MoLESS) as the apex structure in setting policy on and supported by various relevant thematic sub-structures from local to the federal level. Foreign Employment Act is essentially promoting foreign employment and facilitating recruiting agencies rather than managing migration by focusing protection concerns and enhancing justice to migrants and their families. Considering the role of financial, social, cultural and technical remittances migration generates for the home country, volume of migrant communities and nature work available in the destinations, it is crucial that Nepal government formulate an integrated migration policy framework to maximize benefits of migration and ensure welfare of working migrants and their families staying back.    

Better protection

Nepali migrants are relatively low skilled, less aware about vulnerabilities they face in highly competitive labor markets. Even their migration journeys are being facilitated by government regulated recruiting agencies but contractual fraud, wage discrimination, trafficking, sexual and gender based violence against migrant women, cheating in migratory cost, false promises, health and safety concerns are key challenges Nepali migrants face. Some of these challenges are Nepali institutions that are related to recruiting agencies, various departments and immigration services and some are related to discriminatory practices of employer and labor market of destination countries. These challenges can be addressed by making migrants skilled according to the needs of changing labor markets and raising awareness among migrants about their rights and responsibilities at work. 

Ratification of relevant UN conventions

Nepal is signatory of many relevant UN conventions that are important to protect rights of citizens but has not yet ratified two key conventions crucial to manage migration and protect the rights of migrants in general and migrant domestic workers in particular. ILO Convention 189 is important for welfare of migrants’ domestic workers, predominantly women and migrants’ rights convention is fundamental for protection of all migrants’ workers. These conventions are foundational mechanisms to address various injustices and challenges throughout migration processes. It is important that Nepal should ratify these two key conventions without any delays and formulate an integrated migration policy framework.

Cross border migration with India 

Indo-Nepal migration has been significant to create job opportunities for millions Nepali laborers but they are neither counted as migrants nor their remittances are accounted for by the national economy. Lack of acknowledging their status limits any benefits or justices that Nepal migration governance covers. Later or sooner Nepal has to address this issue and integrate cross border migration into migration definition, maximize their benefits into national development and respond to their challenges without any discrimination. It is also important to note that labor migration to India are predominantly low income, unskilled and seasonal, short term to medium term migrants. Some research shows that migrants who generated some financial resources, they plan to go to Arab and other destinations.

Female migrants

My research and program development experiences in various countries of south, south east and central Asia, eastern Europe and north Africa suggest that migrant women are most vulnerable due to social perceptions on their sexuality and migrant status. Regardless of their types of migration, women are immediately seen as migrants working in sex sector, trafficked women, and domestic workers experienced sexual abuses etc. This negative narrative is not true. Any migrants regardless of their gender and sexual orientation may encounter various forms of abuses including sexual. It is true however women migrants face more gender and sexual violence than men because of unsafe labour market but migrants women are also migrants like their male counterparts and work in various sectors including hospitality, marketing, tourism, transportation sector and electronic companies. While migrant women face more abuse than men at work, they also face social and cultural stigma on their return by their own family, neighbors and wider society. This stigma is high for those migrant women who return with less financial remittances. To address this stigma, we need to make the wider public aware about the role of female migrants in their family and wider social development.     

Migration is not to stop

Many Nepali politicians talk about stopping migration, particularly during the elections but this is false promises and lack of understanding on migration phenomenon. Migration is part of liberal democracy and market oriented economic policies which is the foundation of our current political governance, development framework and pillar of economy. So, proper management through relevant, migrant friendly migration policy and harnessing benefits from migration is the ultimate approach a country like Nepal needs to adopt.      

Coordination and cooperation

To conclude, when we talk about integrated migration policy, this also emphasizes proper coordination among government stakeholders such as ministry of labor foreign employment and social protection, ministry of women, children and senior citizens, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of home affairs, ministry of law, ministry of finance and national planning commission. This coordination also needs to be at provincial and local level. So vertical and horizontal coordination within government institutions and with relevant NGOs, migrants rights organizations and recruiting agencies is crucial for safe and dignified migration management and maximize benefits of migration in development plans of Nepal.