Vaccination rule has added uncertainty to Nepal’s foreign employment sector. Nepali diplomats in labour destination countries say workers are facing similar hardship as last year.
Chandan Kumar Mandal, Kathmandu-
Tens of thousands of Nepali youths at home and in labour destination countries continue to face numerous hurdles due to the ongoing second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
After Nepal and its labour-receiving countries once again imposed various measures for containing the spread of the coronavirus over the last couple of months, Nepali workers have encountered problems while pursuing overseas jobs and returning home.
During a virtual interaction on Wednesday, Nepali foreign mission officials in major destination countries—the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Malaysia—listed out the problems faced by Nepali migrant workers that are almost similar to the situation of the last year.
According to them, Nepali migrant workers at home have not been able to take up foreign jobs due to the recent movement restrictions in destination countries and those in destination countries are struggling to return home as there are not enough flights.
“As Covid-19 cases once again picked up in recent months and restrictions were enforced, Nepali workers’ residence permits have not been renewed. Anyone caught with an expired residence permit, locally known as iqama, can face jail,” said Jiwan Kumar Rai, labour counsellor at the Nepal Embassy in Saudi Arabia. “Then there is a problem with the exit visa for leaving the country, which is not being issued regularly. At our initiation, nearly 2,000 exit visas were granted to Nepali workers.”
Rai said even when workers have secured their exit visas, their prospects of returning home have been diminished by the limited number of flights.
“Some companies are not even allowing their workers to leave, giving excuses of limited flights and ticket shortage. Also, flights to and from Saudi Arabia have so far been limited to Dammam, not Riyadh, the capital city,” said Rai. “So those headed for Nepal have to either reach Dammam or take a transit flight to Doha of Qatar. Even tickets are exorbitantly expensive and then they are required to stay in quarantine upon landing in Nepal, adding to the financial burden on them.”
According to Rai, the labour counsellor, while some employers are reluctant to bear the airfare of such expensive flights, some are even offering the maximum amounts they can provide to workers for buying tickets.
When a limited number of regular scheduled flights had resumed after several weeks of international flights suspension, flights had resumed to destination countries, including Saudi Arabia. However, there are only two weekly flights to Saudi Arabia. Himalaya Airlines has been operating two weekly flights from Dammam of Saudi Arabia, but the airfare is much higher than the regular rate.
“Even during normal times, Nepal-bound flights from Saudi Arabia are mostly packed,” said Rai. “As there were no flights between Kathmandu and Riyadh even prior to the pandemic, it would be better if the Nepal Airlines considered operating on the Riyadh route even if a few flights a week.”
The hardship faced by Nepali migrants is no different in Malaysia, another major labour destination country, which is also hit hard by the second wave of the pandemic. The country has imposed an enhanced movement control order, which is stricter than the previous measures, to contain the spread of the virus.
“In the past most Nepali workers would visit us with pay-related problems, but now their only concern is to return home,” said Deepak Dhakal, labour counsellor at the Nepali Embassy in Malaysia. “Flights between Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu have resumed but their numbers are limited. Many workers had already obtained their check out memos, which are issued to foreign workers for leaving the country, but they remain stuck as tickets are not easy to come by.”
According to Dhakal, while tickets are already expensive, travel agencies are also collecting quarantine charges at the time of buying tickets, adding financial burden on the workers.
“Also, obtaining a check out memo has been another major challenge as most of the services have been affected lately, so many workers are stuck in Malaysia,” said Dhakal. “The embassy has requested the local governments facilitate the process of issuing the memos.”
Countries coming forward with strict rules for non-vaccinated foreigners have added to the uncertainties facing Nepal’s foreign employment sector.
“Lately, the UAE government has stopped taking workers from Nepal and other South Asian countries. As a result, even those who had gone home to Nepal on vacation have not been able to return to the UAE,” said Nirmala Thapa, a labour counsellor at the Nepali Embassy in the UAE. “We have been even exploring options to allow Nepali workers on annual vacations and those vaccinated to return to the UAE. If Covid situation improves back in Nepal and also in the UAE, we hope the UAE government may allow Nepalis to come for work.”
According to Thapa, the UAE has impressively rolled out its Covid-19 vaccination programme and has also been offering free vaccines to everyone who has been staying in the country legally.
“At first, Nepal suspended flights to the UAE as part of Covid containment measures and later the UAE government also stopped flights to Nepal,” said Thapa. “In the UAE, Nepalis are more worried about whether they will be able to return if they flew to Nepal. They are not much worried about returning home.”
According to Thapa, the demand for Nepali workers in the UAE is high as there has been a severe shortage of workers in various sectors due to the restrictions imposed by the UAE and the labour-sending countries.
Nepali workers’ prospects of reaching Malaysia, which once was the most popular destination for Nepali job seekers, also remain uncertain, at least until the end of the year.
“Local employers have been regularly contacting the embassy and inquiring when will Nepali workers be able to come to Malaysia. This shows there is a good demand for Nepali workers,” said Dhakal, the labour counsellor. “However, the Nepal government cannot do anything about it. Malaysia’s Covid-19 recovery plan is still silent about the timeframe for welcoming foreign workers, but they are hopeful normalcy would return by December. So we hope things will be better by December and Nepali workers will be able to come to Malaysia.”
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Chandan Kumar Mandal is the environment and migration reporter for The Kathmandu Post, covering labour migration and governance, as well as climate change, natural disasters, and wildlife.