In the 1980s, there used to be a motto in the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) ‘Able Hands in Foreign Lands’ considered a pioneer among Asian governmental structures that promote foreign labor. The Philippines indeed has been promoting foreign labor in quite a few ways that other Asian countries can well emulate, particularly in making sure the workers fit the job profile, are skilled, and put to the test before they leave, so that they can speak the foreign language of the destination country where they arrive in haste.
In 2008, the Nepal Government report on overseas employment promotion that the number of countries seeking Nepali able hands has doubled, while the quality of workers remains stagnant. That is , education and skills-wise. We got to be honest with ourselves. Nepal cannot continue generating a pool of unskilled workers at lower end jobs for foreign countries; that market will soon be oversaturated with too many poor Nepali souls eking out a ‘just-so’ quality of life! This would be in stark contrast to the QOL, for instance, what a Pakistani, Indian or Filipino worker enjoys because these countries have worked towards steady and systematic promotion of foreign overseas employment abroad for many generations.
The Department of Labor and Employment Promotion of the Nepal Government states, workers leaving for Qatar, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia made up more than 93 percent of the total departures during the first 11 months of the current fiscal year 2007-08. Of the total 215,639 workers–which is a record number to date, most were unskilled. The Nepal Government recorded 201,507 workers headed to the four countries to fill in for blue-collar jobs in construction, manufacturing and service sectors. On the other hand, there are also governments in Qatar, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia that have tested Nepali workers for their hard work, honesty and ability to do the dirty and dangerous jobs, but these days they are equally convinced that Nepali workers can work higher skilled assignments purposefully. One should also note, Nepali labor attaches are posted in only a handful of Nepali embassies in the Middle East, mostly trained by the ILO, though doing a valiant job in listening to the woes of mostly unskilled workers. It is a bad Nepali precedent to only come calling for help when one needs assistance badly, and usually the poor attaché has little in his hands to try anything new or innovative.
There is a strategic dimension to Nepali foreign employment as well. It is just more than a coincidence that Nepali workers mostly work in countries where the U.S and India have a major strategic hold or major foreign policy stake. Nepali workers are in fact, considered by most of the host countries as a secondary stream of the Indian labor force which has been in these countries for decades sending nearly US$ 19 billion a year back to India!
One should therefore note, a major workshop on Labor Migration Poverty Alleviation and Foreign Employment conducted in August, 2007 in Kathmandu by one of Nepal’s most well known, persuasive and foresighted intellectual thinkers, Professor Sridhar Kumar Khatri, who stated that Nepal’s economy had good prospects and enough reasons to survive if it promoted foreign labor through systematic export, which would have to be tailored to host country requirements. Thereby, the labor export ‘returns’ would be seen through direct foreign migrant remittance earnings channeled back to Nepal in a couple of years. This is precisely the end game scenario now! It is equally well known that Nepali economic growth and stability, despite the civil conflict that took place between 1996-2006, was largely sustained through the migrant remittances which are known to total between US$2 billion to US$ 3 billion annually if the unofficial ‘hundi’ system is also accounted for. Minister of Finance Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat, in fact, congratulated Professor Khatri for his insight but also stated that the liberal passport and immigration policy and migration to countries other than India was basically a phenomenon after the democracy of 1990 which still needs to be properly cultivated.
Nevertheless, as a good government gesture, Dr Mahat promised that the Nepal Government would do all that it could to fill in with quality service and extend all necessary infrastructure requirement to promote foreign employment and assist Nepali migrant workers abroad. Dr. Mahat’s promise, like Dr.Khatri’s is slowly being fulfilled, with an enhancement of Nepali skilled labor flows abroad, although the current political deadlock seems to affect everything, including sending foreign workers abroad.
By way of emigration for work, neighboring Malaysia is still the second largest destination for Nepali workers which has been considered less attractive due to falling dollar prices, meager salaries, government levies and stricter labor policies adopted by the Malaysian government according to those who have returned back. In the last 11 months of this fiscal year, the number of Nepali workers going there decreased by 30 percent to 45,680 persons compared to the same period last year. On the other hand, the number of countries hiring Nepali workers on a regular basis has shot up to 64 from only 38 hiring last year.
What about the future? It might be wholesome if Nepali universities also ran courses on foreign employment, made it compulsory to teach a second foreign language and also ran training courses on various labor skills required from nursing to restaurant hygiene and crane operation (which kills more than two dozen Nepalis each year!) Today, Nepal permits its citizens to work in 107 countries around the world except Iraq, that is quite impressive!
According to Tilak Ranabhat who heads the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agents (NAFEA), “We have to look for better destinations in the years ahead as the existing labor market for Nepali workers is becoming more competitive due to an influx of labor from other poor countries.” Ranabhat adds that Nepalis have to compete with foreign workers who are more endowed skill-wise such as from Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. Dr. Sarad Adhikari, executive director of Skill Training Directorate, a government-run skill training center, asserts that nearly 14, 300 Nepalis got training last year in various subjects such as masonry, automobile repair, plumbing, house wiring and other occupations, but the fact I,s this is a meager sum to contend with given that thousands of Nepali able hands are still wishing to join foreign lands for a safe income and the promise of a better quality of life for their families back home through sustained remittance inputs.
Nepal’s GDP stood at $7.7 billion this year, with a growth of 2.38% projected for this year. But Nepali per capita income still stands at only US$ 322 while inflation has hit above 12% according to Nepali academics. Therefore, what better boon could there be than foreign labor and a well resourced pool of Nepalis ready to fill in the quickly building quota abroad? It would make Nepal’s name more well known internationally and probably help generate even better remittance flows! It would be highly suggestible, therefore, that organizations such as ILO, IOM, USAID, EU, World Bank and the ADB, which have contributed generously to Nepali growth in the past decades, look into this aspect of Nepali economic development as well in the future, so as to promote a desired Nepali national skills bank to match the honesty, hard work and diligence of Nepali workers abroad. It is time Nepali labor experts and different associations had a serious brainstorming in the original spirit of Dr. Khatri’s proposal on proper and skilled foreign employment promotion for Nepal, which indeed is benefitting the national economy.
(Surya B. Prasai is a global strategic communications, media and international development resource consultant based in Maryland, whose views regularly appear in some eminent global media on a regular basis, including Google and Yahoo Global News Networks on international affairs.)
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