Exiles at Home
Migrant workers are heroes of the nation, but the government treats them as lesser humans.
The Kathmandu Post
7 August 2021
There are many contenders for that unsavoury distinction, but among the lowest points in our fight against Covid-19 was the sight of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf banding together to buy oxygen cylinders to meet the huge shortfall our government had failed to foresee. Instead of building up savings towards a mobile phone or a flat screen TV for their near and dear ones waiting expectantly through long years of separation, hard-working Nepalis were chipping in to help a nation they call home.
For all their pains, though, their efforts seem to have been forgotten, and we are back to business as usual. That is, making sure that the toughest and often unnecessary obstacles are placed before migrant workers in their quest to earn an honest living (while also collectively propping up the national economy). A recent headline in Kantipur was brutal: ‘You give us oxygen, we’ll ensure you torture.’ The article detailed how migrant hopefuls, always in a pincer between an uncaring government and unscrupulous agents, are now confronted with the urgent need to get vaccinated and thereafter get their vaccination cards ‘certified’.
With the end of the lockdown, prospective migrants have descended on the capital by the thousands. The one commendable government decision—to prioritise vaccines for migrant workers—was offset by the utter chaos that ensued by the designation of just four vaccination centres for the purpose. If that was not enough, everyone then had to converge in one place to get their vaccination cards certified, all the while contending with the mad rush that followed them everywhere. After a public outcry, it was decided that any sizeable hospital could provide certification. Why it was not done in the beginning beats reason, but trust the government to come up with ingenious ways to make life difficult for the people at every given opportunity.
Edward Said once wrote that ‘exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’ Our migrant workers leave on their own volition, but through a process that many can least afford. Almost none has contracts or can spare the wherewithal to allow them time off to come back whenever they want to. Their condition is thus not unlike that of an exile, with the ‘sadness’ accentuated by an uncaring state. More on this later, but I would like to highlight two worthy counterexamples that set out to understand the trauma of the ‘forced rift’ that Said himself experienced for much of his life.
The first is from when South Korea used to send its workers abroad. During a trip in 1964 to West Germany to negotiate a loan, the Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee, also found the time to catch up with some Korean miners far away from the capital. The town hall-style meeting took quite an unexpected turn. As was reported, ‘the last part of the Korean national anthem, which was played by a band of miners, was barely audible because everyone was sobbing’. When Park started talking, he began by saying: ‘Let’s work for the honour of our country. Even if we can’t achieve it during our lifetime, let’s work hard for the sake of our children so that they can live in prosperity like everyone else.’
The general could not continue for long since he also choked up. ‘Everyone cried, including the first lady and the officials accompanying the president.’ The story goes that the Korean workers in Germany put up their future earnings as collateral for the loan being discussed. The scale may be different, but the despatch of oxygen cylinders by the much-poorer Nepal workers in the Gulf cannot in any way be less worthy of recounting.
The second story comes from the Philippines, a country that had a head start over us in sending workers abroad and which, like us, also continues to rely on them to sustain the economy. When Corazon Aquino became president in 1986, she undertook just 16 foreign trips in her six-year tenure. The one criterion she had for accepting invitations from abroad was the presence of Filipino workers there. A former exile herself, she would have been keenly aware of the plights of migrant workers, and it was during one such trip to Hong Kong in 1988 that she made the famous speech in which she extolled the Filipinos working abroad as the ‘new heroes’. In Aquino’s own words: ‘You have every reason to be proud of your work, whatever your work, no matter how despicable it might seem to others… [R]emember that it is not just your spouse, children and relatives who will be grateful for the sacrifice you are making, but the entire Filipino people. You can be sure that your government will do everything for your good.’
There are problems galore in the foreign employment sector in the Philippines, not to mention the failure over the many decades to ensure well-paid and dignified work to retain them at home. But at least the state had made an effort to recognise the immense contributions by the Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs as they are called, starting at the Manila airport itself where a red carpet leads them away from ordinary travellers. Even abroad, there appears to be every effort to provide service to the OFWs. For instance, as I pointed out last year, there is one embassy staffer for every 4,750 Filipino workers in Qatar. In contrast, the ratio at our embassy is one for every 30,400 Nepali workers. Is it any wonder that Nepali migrants despair of any meaningful support from our missions abroad?
Back home, it is a different story. The Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) has seen 21 Directors General (DGs) in the past 12 years (with the count of ministers in charge almost equally long). Apart from two of the DGs being under investigation for corruption, the high turnover in this nodal body in charge of the foreign employment sector indicates how rotten the system has become, with anyone trying to bring in positive changes shunted aside.
That probably explains why there is no longer any pretence among these ‘manpower companies’ following the government’s official policy of ‘free-visa, free-ticket’ for foreign employment. Even though this near-zero-cost scheme for migrant workers had always been observed more in the breach, at least everyone pretended it was otherwise. Now, we have the secretary of the recruitment agencies’ association brazenly quoted as saying: ‘There should be more flights to facilitate migrant workers so that they get tickets at cheaper rates.’
It is baffling that the government is unwilling to do anything when our workers pay nearly five times what a regular ticket would cost, an amount equal to around five months’ wages for workers at the bottom of the rung. One can only assume that the airlines are getting away with it because they can, despite their claims of fewer flights.
I am no expert on airline ticket pricing, but a simple comparison with another country similarly placed shows what a lousy deal our workers are getting. An internet search a few days ago for ticket prices on nearly equidistant routes—Kathmandu to Doha and Colombo to Doha—showed the latter (at USD 300) to be more than four times cheaper despite the longer flying time (see accompanying screenshots). That, though, is only part of the story. The outrage is that airlines were allowed to carry a maximum of only 75 passengers when flying to Colombo until recently. Yet, ticket prices were much lower than on the full flights allowed into Nepal.
When I last flew into Kathmandu in early July in a packed-like-sardines flight, there sat a chap with a register noting down how much everyone had paid for their flights. As he explained, there had been complaints about extortionate ticket prices and they were trying to figure out what was happening. I can imagine he is still there a month later, filling register after register, officiously pretending that something will be done about it. He is fooling no one—not the workers coming back—savvy as they have become about worldly ways and can see through a deceptive ploy. Certainly, our heroes deserve better than that.