Insights and Analysis

Nepali Labor Migrants, Covid-19, and the State

April 1, 2020

By Suswopna Rimal

Labor migration forms an integral part of Nepal’s economy, and remittances contribute almost a quarter of the country’s GDP. In the span of a decade, remittances from abroad have more than tripled, from $2.54 billion to $8.79 billion. Anxious to provide better lives for their families, a large proportion of Nepal’s population has been seeking work abroad, and the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) has issued over four million labor permits to Nepali workers since 2009. Although the government has officially approved 110 destination countries for labor migrants, the top five are Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Malaysia, where oil wealth or labor shortages have created opportunities for foreign workers.

Men line up to enter Nepal’s passport department before the pandemic. Many are now locked down, far from home. (Photo: Conor Ashleigh / The Asia Foundation)

Nepal’s labor migrants send money and bring home acquired skills, but they have also increased their country’s resilience. When the 2015 earthquakes struck, foreign remittances quickly jumped by 20 percent, cushioning families back home against the financial shock of the disaster.

Five years later, another disaster looms, but this time it is a global pandemic. The migrant heroes of Nepal’s economy suddenly find themselves in a precarious position. Covid-19 is extremely contagious, and the government of Nepal has barred all international flights, keeping job-seekers home and stranding migrant workers in their destination countries, even as work visas expire. On March 24, the government’s High-Level Coordination Committee for Prevention and Control of Covid-19 called upon Nepalis abroad to remain safely where they were and appealed to those countries to protect their health and safety. Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, addressing the nation, called on Nepal’s diplomatic missions to be migrants’ point of contact for crucial information and support.

The top five destination countries for Nepalis have already gone to complete coronavirus lockdown, drastically disrupting the lives of their many foreign workers.

Nepal, at this writing, has reported just five domestic cases of the coronavirus, but it is spreading rapidly in the top five destination countries, which have already gone to complete lockdown, drastically disrupting the lives of their many foreign workers and stoking anxiety about their jobs and their personal safety.

Dilli Ram Sigdel, a Nepali labor migrant in Qatar since 2016, originally hails from Nepal’s Jhapa District. He receives full health benefits in Qatar, and he says his host country has not discriminated against him. At the same time, he currently shares an apartment with five other friends who are also foreign workers, and he has to go to work regardless of the spread of the virus. Though his company has taken all the recommended precautions, his vulnerability to the virus cannot be ignored. “I am not worried about contracting the virus,” he says, “but I am scared to lose my job, being the only wage earner in my family. I am also worried about my family back home whom I cannot be with.”

To cope with the current crisis, Sigdel tries to stay connected with his fellow Nepalis in Qatar. He speaks well of the efforts of the Nepali embassy, but they haven’t been able to meet all of his countrymen’s needs. He also calls Nepal slow to respond to the crisis and says they were ill prepared, both at home and abroad, for the pandemic’s impact on labor migration. There has been growing media coverage of the Qatari government’s attempts to seal off the labor camps to contain the virus, which has further sidelined migrant laborers from the rest of the country and turned the camps into what Arab News has dubbed “coronavirus prison.”

Attempts to contain the virus have turned the camps for labor migrants into what some media have dubbed “coronavirus prison.”

Manu Kafle, whose husband works in Kuwait as a security guard, resides in Sunsari. She says the Kuwaiti government has imposed a curfew, but that her husband is still working. His company has provided him with the necessary preventive measures, she says, but he too lives with four other people in a single room. Though she misses his presence, she feels it’s better to stay separated than to risk their lives by traveling. “If we pass through this and come out alive, we’ll meet again,” she says with a sad smile.

Conditions are reportedly worse in Malaysia, where worker settlements are overcrowded and often lack proper water and sanitation. Although Covid-19 tests have been made free for Malaysian nationals and foreign visitors, there remains ambiguity regarding migrants with questionable legal status. At the federal level, the country has taken strict measures to contain the virus and imposed lockdowns on all nonessential businesses. Hari Thapa, a Nepali migrant working at Malacca, says he and his friends have been confined to a hostel by the lockdown. “My company is closed,” he says, “and all the workers, including me, are on unpaid leave. We’ve been given a government pass to go grocery shopping, but if someone is found roaming without it, he will be jailed for two years with a fine equivalent to 300,000 Nepali rupees, so we are all strictly following the government’s instructions.”

As of this writing, five Nepali migrants have tested positive for coronavirus in their destination countries—two in the UAE and three in Bahrain—but many more are currently in forced isolation and quarantine. One hundred fifty Nepalis were deported from Qatar in mid-March for disobeying the government’s restrictions on movement. According to Mr. Jeevan Baniya of the Centre for the Study of Labor and Mobility (CESLAM), “Many migrants have been laid off from their jobs and are on unpaid leave, unable to even return to their home countries due to travel restrictions. In some countries migrants are working, but their safety is highly questionable. In a situation like this, embassies need to be proactive to ensure their well-being. They also need to maintain a database on Covid cases among migrants and reach out to them instead of expecting them to reach out to the missions. The issue needs to be viewed from a human-rights perspective instead of a labor-rights angle.” According to the National Labor Report 2020, however, the missions are hobbled by inadequate financial resources, failure to implement the Foreign Employment Information Management System, and overworked counselors and labor attaches.

“If we pass through this and come out alive, we’ll meet again.”

In the midst of a spreading pandemic, the relationship between global migration and health has become starkly apparent. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families declares that migrants and their families have a right to life and a right to medical care, which, it says,shall be given irrespective of any irregularity with regard to stay or employment.” But bilateral agreements between origin and destination countries to protect the rights of labor migrants remain woefully incomplete. As Covid-19 democratizes the spread of sickness and death, Nepal and every nation should begin crafting a future for labor migrants that is dignified, humane, and safe.

Stories from Qatar and Malaysia were reported by Tulasi Nepal of Bikas Udhyami.

Suswopna Rimal is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Nepal. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Nepal


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