Questions that matter

  • The discourse on migrant workers needs to focus on accountability and attribution

Jul 18, 2017-

Issues surrounding labour migration have been widely talked about in recent years. The discontent of labour migration and the fate of those seeking economic solace in foreign countries have been a rich and compelling subject for songwriters, journalists, academicians, moviemakers, writers, politicians and civil society members. The captivating and painful stories of migrant workers abroad, if told properly, can turn books into bestsellers and movies into blockbusters. They can make songs go viral.   

Coverage of labour migration from Nepal and how workers are exploited, exposed to inhumane conditions and come back in wooden boxes on a daily basis is much required. Such coverage helps highlight the agenda of labour migration and the rights of migrant workers. But are we talking about the most salient things regarding labour migration? Are we asking the rights questions to address the migrant workers’ concerns? Or is our discourse lacking in important aspects?  

Legal and moral obligation 

Almost everyone who reads a newspaper on a regular basis can tell us the list of migrant workers’ concerns, from death during sleep to painful tales of exploitation. The narrative of high-interest loans to finance migration, fraudulent contracts, false job positions in the destination country and the tragic instances of sudden unexpected/unexplained death syndrome (SUDS) is widely shared. We have devoted much energy to tell the stories of migrant workers from Nepal. But now, we need to talk about issues that can make a tangible difference and effect change. In the context of the discourse on migrant workers, we need to focus on the questions of accountability and attribution. The question of accountability is a broader one, which invokes the responsibility of the state, whereas the question of attribution deals with the root of the problem. 

The government of Nepal has legal as well as moral obligations to protect and ensure the rights of its nationals working in foreign countries as migrant workers. Constitutional and international legal law has placed an obligation on the government of Nepal to ensure the rights of migrant workers. However, the plight of migrant workers in recent times suggests that the government’s efforts have not yielded desired results.

Due to jurisdictional issues and domestic laws of other countries, not everything is in the hand of the Nepal government. However, there is a set of rights and obligations regarding migrant workers that have been well formed, and Nepal has failed to comply with them. For example, the Nepal government has failed to effectively implement the free-visa, free-ticket policy, the repetitive ban on women migrants workers in different forms, etc. The government does not even have proper statistics on migrant workers abroad. 

Lax enforcement

Despite legal obligations, the government of Nepal has been failing to ensure the rights of migrant workers even within the country. It is high time the discourse on migrant workers demanded accountability from the government. Under Article 51 (i) (5) of the constitution, “Policies relating to labour and employment”, it is recognised that the government would work “to regulate and manage the sector in order to make foreign employment free from exploitation, safe and systematic and to guarantee employment and rights of the labourers.” 

If migrant workers are certified as being healthy by government approved agencies before being sent to a foreign country, yet they are dying at alarming rates, don’t we need to know why? If the government directive or order regarding recruitment fees is not being implemented, who is to be held accountable? If Nepali migrant workers are being exploited, cheated and misinformed, who is responsible? Doesn’t the state have an obligation to ensure that those involved in such activities—at least at home—are held responsible for their wrongdoings and are prosecuted?

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to determine who is responsible for the wretched fate of Nepali migrants in destination countries. The government, if willing, can identify the actors who are responsible for the plight of migrant workers and address the concerns to a large extent. However, the government is not playing a proactive role in addressing these concerns, and migrant workers are not bold enough to point an accusing finger at the guilty. 

In closing, we have had a long and sad discussion for far too long about Nepali migrant workers. We now need to ask the questions that matter and can lead to change. Who is responsible for this situation? Can those responsible be identified and held accountable for their wrongdoings? Why isn’t the government sufficiently bothered?

Recent government decisions relating to migrant workers’ issues revolve around welfare commitments without any acknowledgment of accountability. The government is giving migrant workers and their families what is easy instead of what is right. The discourse on migrant workers needs to focus on the issue of accountability if we are to truly address their concerns. 


Ghimire is an advocate and teaches human rights law

Published: 18-07-2017 07:50

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