Rapid Assessment of Nepali Migrant Workers’ Situation in Major Destination Countries During the COVID-19 Pandemic

ABSTRACT

As Nepal grapples with the dual challenges of dealing with a beleaguered health care system as well as the sudden economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also faced with a monumental challenge of managing the rescue and repatriation operation, and reintegration of a high volume of migrant workers. Nepali migrants are spread across the world, primarily in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Malaysia and India, and have experienced diverse set of impacts from the pandemic, owing to both the precarious nature of their jobs and less than desirable living conditions. Consequently, the anticipated and unprecedented reverse migration has put their social and economic reintegration in the spotlight. The success of the reintegration programs currently in consideration by the government —whether through wage-employment or self- employment— or how swiftly they are integrated into their communities rest on how well they reflect the aspirations, interests and experiences of the intended beneficiaries i.e., the migrants themselves.
This Rapid Assessment aims to capture the current situation of migrant workers to inform the Government’s policymaking efforts as it braces for an unprecedented return of migrant workers. This report, largely based on phone surveys, captures the views of 625 migrants based in 8 primary destination countries (GCC countries, Malaysia and India), and is further enriched with focus group discussions and secondary data analysis. Migration to the aforementioned 8 countries is a temporary phenomenon. However, as described in this study, migrants report that they have put in inadequate effort in making their return plans, whether it is their return intentions or what to do upon return. Like rest of the world, they were largely unprepared for the shock and post- implications of COVID-19, which has compelled them to think prematurely about their return to Nepal.
On the one hand, a high share of migrants has thought about returning to Nepal while on the other, many seem conflicted about whether they should return, given the uncertainties about their employment prospects as well as the escalating cases of COVID-19 infection in Nepal. Returning to Nepal would mean navigating the complicated repatriation process, paying for the expensive airfare, spending two-weeks in poorly equipped quarantine centers and potentially facing further lockdowns in Nepal. Conversely, remaining abroad holds the possibility for resumption of employment and mobility in the destination country despite the uncertainty of business and economy revival owing to market volatility, disruptions in international mobility and supply chains, and the cancelation or delays in large scale development projects or events.
The pandemic has revealed the sub-standard living and employment situation of migrants working abroad. A majority of the respondents (58%) were worried about getting infected due to their working conditions while a lesser proportion (17%) reported concerns about getting infected due to their living conditions. Workplace is considered more vulnerable, particularly because the number of individuals that migrant workers are exposed to is much higher in such situation, whether it is through colleagues who live in different camps, through customers in case of client- facing jobs (e.g. in supermarkets and security) or through the need to share public transport, and workplace canteens. The levels of exposure given the cramped and unhygienic conditions of the camps or shared rooms is still comparatively lower to individuals than similar situations in the workplaces.
While the volume of returnees is uncertain as it hinges on a number of factors, migrants report anxiety about their future. They report that a drop in remittance has direct bearings on their ability to cover their basic needs. In the absence of financial remittances, the inability to afford food, rent, children’s education and loan repayment stood as the primary concerns among the respondents. A few of the respondents also alluded to the non-economic impact of the reduction in remittances such as its potential to contribute towards an increase in discrimination, domestic violence and other familial tensions, which was also echoed in focus group discussions.
There are also concerns about post-return plans. An overwhelmingly majority of migrants (~80%) reported that they are interested in engaging in self-employment, either in agriculture or non- agriculture if they return to Nepal. The remaining would prefer to engage in wage-employment either in agriculture or non-agriculture sectors. The combination of low earnings but high living costs makes wage employment opportunities in Nepal less attractive as per migrants in the focus group discussions. While the Government has prioritized policies and programs for returnees and, as announced in the proposed annual budget, it is evident from the survey that 70 percent of respondents are completely unaware about these programs, and only an extremely low (~2 %) minority knew how to get access to them.
Among respondents, a vast majority (80%) report that lack of finance is the major constraint in engaging in self-employment, given that much of their earnings abroad is spent on month-to- month sustenance for families back home. In addition, half of the migrants reported lack of skills/training as a major constraint, followed by lack of professional networks, insufficient information on the local context, and cumbersome administrative barriers as other constraints.
For the small share of returnees interested in wage employment, lack of skills, training and appropriate experience, lack of information regarding opportunities and lack of access to appropriate networks were reported as key obstacles. About a third of the respondents thought they were not able to apply for the job because of their inability to navigate the application process. Not surprisingly, respondents believed that the wages and benefits in Nepal are limited compared to the higher wages received for similar occupations abroad, which makes wage employment a less attractive option back home.
This study reveals that the plan and programs targeting returnees need to emphasize the implementation aspects starting with information dissemination on the kinds of programs that exist and clear instructions on how to access them. There is specific need to intensify the role of local governments that, according to the Local Governance Operations Act 2074 B.S., are mandated with the responsibilities of a number of foreign employment tasks including establishing a database of returnees and facilitating their social and economic reintegration.
For a successful re-integration of returnee migrants, the government must ensure that vulnerable groups such as undocumented migrant workers, which includes a high share of women, are rescued and not left out in the reintegration process and programs funded by the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund (FEWF). This issue is of importance as workers may have traveled irregularly without obtaining labour approvals or overstayed their visas abroad without renewing their labour approvals in a timely manner, but are now returning home and require support.
The planning for successful reintegration programs largely rests on good database and its ensuing objective analysis. Information of the returnee’s social and capital remittances such as their acquired skills, experiences, work ethics, networks and know-how—when matched and mobilized productively with employment opportunities in Nepal is critical. Furthermore, an inclusive approach that ensures the participation of the target beneficiaries i.e., the returnees, right from the planning stage of the reintegration programs, is necessary in the origin communities to ensure their ownership and success.
The sudden influx of reverse migration poses a singular challenge for the country. To mobilize returnees effectively in key priority sectors, design and implementation of innovative set of policies, strategies and programs that recognize migrants’ social remittances and reflect their interests and aspirations may, in fact, turn out to be a favorable opportunity for Nepal that has long recognized the risks of its over-dependence on remittances.

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