INTERVIEW WITH RAMESH LEKHAK--'Our priority is to ensure the safety of our workers'

'Our priority is to ensure the safety of our workers'

 

 

Ramesh Lekhak, Minister of Labor and Transport Management, was in the UAE to attend the fourth conference of labor ministers of Asian countries engaged in sending and receiving migrant workers. He has been making efforts to regulate the messy foreign employment sector to promote safe migration of Nepali workers. Amid growing concern about the plight of Nepali workers abroad and the changing situation of migrant workers in the international labor market, Lekhak talked to Kamal Raj Sigdel and Prabhakar Ghimire of The Kathmandu Post about the challenges and opportunities in the foreign employment sector.

 

Excerpts:

 

Q: You recently led a delegation to the fourth conference of Asian labor ministers held in the UAE. Considering the growing concern over the safety of Nepali workers in most of the labor destinations, the conference must have held meaning to Nepal. How beneficial was your trip?

 

Lekhak: The seminar was beneficial for both labor recipient and sending countries. Two separate meetings focusing on temporary contractual labor issues were held. The first meeting included labor sending and receiving countries and it discussed emerging problems and ways to solve them. The second meeting consisted of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and it focused on GCC policies on temporary contractual labor.

 

In addition, on the way to the UAE for the meeting in Abu Dhabi, we signed an additional protocol on labor based on the labor pact signed three years ago with Qatar in Doha.

 

During the four-day meeting, we held bilateral meetings and talks with ministers and high ranking officials of other host countries. We proposed signing labor pacts with them. Bahrain and Kuwait have shown interest in signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on labor with Nepal. We are in the process of signing an MoU with Malaysia.

 

Q: The safety of Nepali laborers in the Gulf has been a matter of serious concern. What improvements have you made after you assumed office as labor minister?

 

Lekhak: To respond to this question, we must begin with the realization that it is our compulsion to send our citizens to other countries to work as laborers. However, this is also a need of the times. We have very few opportunities for employment in our country. Most of the existing industries have shut down. Others are on the verge of closure as an effect of the decade-long war. Since the insurgency began, almost all development projects have come to a complete halt. Unemployment increased as economic activity declined, and thus foreign employment became a way out.

 

Though foreign jobs helped to ease the country's unemployment problem to some extent, sending jobseekers abroad has not, however, been trouble-free. There are lots of problems. For example, Nepalis are being cheated both in and outside the country. Nepali workers are underpaid. They are forced to work at difficult and risky jobs for minimum wages, facilities and benefits.

 

Addressing these problems has been of prime importance for the government. The ministry is trying to handle these problems in two ways. First, we are working to regulate manpower companies and simplify the procedures which job aspirants have to follow so that they can find their intended jobs safely without hassles or being cheated. Second, we are working to protect the rights of migrant workers in the destination countries, i.e., ensuring proper facilities, salaries, perks and other benefits.

 

In order to deal with these issues, it became necessary to formulate a fresh policy. So, for starters, we changed our foreign employment laws and policies which had become hopelessly obsolete. Until recently, Nepal was sending laborers to foreign countries under the Foreign Employment Act 2042 BS. During the time when the act was introduced, the number of people going abroad to work was only 1,000 persons per year. Today, almost 600 Nepali jobseekers are leaving the country everyday. The actual number should be higher because this official figure does not include migrant workers who go to India and those who migrate to different overseas countries without following the government's normal procedures. In order to keep up with the changed context, we introduced the Foreign Employment Act 2064 BS. The act includes some special provisions regarding foreign employment. And in line with the act, we have also brought out the Foreign Employment Regulations, which is already in effect.

 

Our second priority is to ensure the safety of our workers. So we see signing MoUs with countries receiving Nepali laborers as an urgent task. We have signed labor MoUs with the UAE and South Korea. We have signed an additional protocol with Qatar, and we will soon be signing labor agreements with other host countries.

 

Q: Despite the labor pacts with different countries, cases of cheating, exploitation and even death have not abated. What factors do you feel are the reason?

 

Lekhak: We cannot stop natural deaths and accidents. However, we can minimize the chances. Some workers die due to the vast change in climate and temperature. Nepali workers have to work in blistering temperatures of 40-50 degrees Celsius.

 

Mindful of these risks, we've made several provisions in the foreign employment law, one of them being proper orientation of the workers prior to departure. Besides, we have resolved another problem that we used to have when a Nepali worker died at work. The families of the deceased did not get any compensation. Now the law has made it compulsory for each worker to have insurance worth Rs 5 lakh before leaving for foreign employment. Another problem was bringing back dead bodies. We've established the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund which runs welfare programs for families of persons working abroad, helps to rescue workers stranded in foreign countries and brings home dead bodies.

 

Q: Thousands of job aspirants are waiting for a chance to go to South Korea. The government failed to send laborers under the quota for 2007. Do you think Nepal will be able to meet the deadline this time?

 

Lekhak: There is neither any fixed annual quota nor any fixed number of laborers to be sent to South Korea. This is a continuous process. Our goal is to complete the entire procedure by March. Potential workers are taking Korean language classes at different institutes. The Koreans themselves are going to administer the language tests. The answer papers will be sent to Korea to be graded. We only act as a facilitator. We are in the process of giving the responsibility of managing the exams to Tribhuvan University.

 

Q: What is the tentative date Nepali jobseekers can expect to get employment in South Korea?

 

Lekhak: I think Nepalis can expect to start leaving for South Korea by March. The Korean side is also of the same mind.

 

Q: The government once prepared a list of institutes which were permitted to run Korean language classes. This has not been implemented at all. And now the ministry is planning to short-list "qualified" institutes. Why is the ministry so obsessed with the unnecessary task of selecting and reselecting language institutes?

 

Lekhak: This is not true. We are not offering any new certificates to the short-listed institutes. One can sit for the Korean Language Test (KLT) regardless of where he or she has studied. From one perspective, when the Korean government itself has not set any criteria for the KLT, it seems unnecessary to qualify certain institutes only. But still the schools should meet the minimum requirements. They must have qualified teachers and well-equipped classes with audio-visual materials.

 

Q: So far, Nepal has been exporting unskilled laborers. Do you have any plans to develop and send skilled laborers to work in foreign countries?

 

Lekhak: I agree that we have been sending only unskilled workers. This is also the main reason why Nepali workers are often cheated and suppressed by their employers. It is easy to deceive unskilled laborers as they are less aware of their rights. They get paid less; they are given difficult jobs. Manpower companies do exploit these people. They give them attractive contracts to sign here in Nepal; but when they arrive at their places of work, they are forced to sign another agreement which gives them meager salaries and benefits.

 

At the moment, we don't have the facilities to operate training programs for unskilled workers. We've asked the private sector to participate in this task. At the UAE conference, I was telling friends at the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRN) that the most important thing we needed today was training.

 

Q: Have you made any effort to diversify the foreign employment market to other places such as Japan and Europe?

 

Europe does not need labor. It neither has a labor shortage nor a surplus. So Europe cannot be a destination for us. While Japan could be the best destination for Nepali workers, there is no place for unskilled labor there. Besides Japan, we are exploring new possibilities in other countries too. We are in the process of reopening Israel.

 

Currently, after South Korea, we are targeting Japan. There are two systems under which we can send laborers. One is the industrial trainee system, and the other is the employment permit system (EPS). Under the first system, the FNCCI was authorized to send Nepali workers to Japan as industrial trainees. But till date the FNCCI hasn't sent a single Nepali to Japan. We are, therefore, thinking of enlisting other capable institutions that can coordinate this task. Earlier, Nepal used to send workers to South Korea under the industrial trainee system; this has now been changed to the EPS.

 

Q: The government was planning to appoint labor attach├ęs in countries where there are Nepali migrant workers. Why hasn't it happened?

 

Lekhak: We don't have any problem in appointing labor attach├ęs, but the code of conduct for the forthcoming election to the Constituent Assembly may affect the process.

 

Q: While we have been targeting the Gulf countries as the major destination for Nepali workers, the labor ministers of some countries there have expressed apprehension about what they call the "tsunami" of foreign workers. Doesn't this indicate that we should diversify our labor destinations?

 

Lekhak: It was the labor minister of Bahrain who was concerned about the impact of their current labor policy. His worry was that a large-scale influx of foreign workers into his country would affect its culture, religion and sovereignty. However, there is another side to the story. Bahrain's labor minister was also urging the people in the region to work harder. He was trying to warn the public there that they had become lazier, thereby compelling their governments to bring in foreign people to do their work. This does not mean that they are going to put an end to hiring foreign workers. There are two reasons that make us confident that something like that will not happen. First, the Gulf countries have high economic growth rates. There is a boom in the construction and overall industrial sectors. No country would like to slow down its economic growth. In order to keep up the momentum, a larger labor force will be required. Second, the population in the Gulf is too small to provide the manpower demanded by their booming economies. Besides, the people there generally don't like to work as laborers because of their high income. So I don't think the Gulf countries will stop taking in foreign workers. But this does not mean that we are only focusing on the Gulf. We are trying to diversify the market.

 

Q: How are negotiations progressing with Israel as it has stopped taking in Nepali workers?

 

Lekhak: We're trying to reopen Israel. This time, we may send laborers to Israel without involving manpower agents in order to make the recruitment process easier. We have two options – sending the workers without involving manpower agents or having the agents monitored by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) as Israel has sought its participation in the recruitment process. I hope we will soon reach an agreement as the government of Israel is preparing a draft of a planned accord with Nepal regarding the process of recruiting Nepali workers. We are waiting for the Israeli government's proposed agreement.

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