In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, job loss created a financial hardship to low-skilled migrants. It cut off the survival lifelines of the family members back home.
Sweeping measures that have been taken to curtail the transmission of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have largely limited global economic and social activities. This has disproportionately affected some of the most vulnerable groups of the society—low and semi-skilled workers. Nepali migrants are no exception. The extent of pandemic-induced economic insecurity is likely to be profound and dire. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that the sudden outbreak of this emergency has robbed over a quarter of a billion full-time jobs globally in 2020.The vacuum created in the international labor market has irreparably shaken the job security of a considerable number of aspiring Nepali youths who risk their lives to support their family back home. Although thorough research remains awaited, it is estimated that the pandemic has swept away approximately half a million jobs of Nepalis in various labor destinations. This has proven detrimental both to an individual as well as the nation.
Around 5.5 million Nepali youths are working overseas, primarily as blue-collar workers in Malaysia and the Persian Gulf. There is no reliable estimation of emigrants to neighboring India due to the porous border. In the immediate aftermath, a job loss has created a financial hardship to low-skilled migrants who live on pay-check to pay-check. It has cut off the survival lifelines of the family members back home, who rely on the regular cash transfers. As the short-term economic migrants predominate the Nepali diaspora, their visa and work permits are intricately tied to their employment stability. Any derailment from the legal status per se compels one to opt between ‘overstay’ or ‘home-return’. A migrant has to bear a loss either way.
An individual job loss can have a far-reaching effect on the economy of the nation. This is especially true in the context of Nepal where the remittance influx accounts for one fourth of the gross domestic product (GDP). When the economy shrinks, it affects the government’s spending on welfare programs and development projects. The list does not end here. A curb in overseas transfers is anticipated to shrink the volume of private consumption thereby distorting income-expenditure balance. Contrary to the double-digit projection of the World Bank, the overall decrease of remittance flow for the last fiscal year was mere 0.5 percent—much lower than the predicted 14 percent. This can indicate that while some had remitted their savings despite job losses, others had maintained uninterrupted work schedules like in pre-COVID circumstances amid psychosocial fears. However, the occupational and health safety of migrants amidst all the odds created by the pandemic remains of particular interest.
Although much attention has been paid to the economic aspect of labor migration, in the hindsight, the social and human cost of remittance remains overlooked. According to Nepal Labor Migration Report 2020, at least 7467 Nepali migrants died between 2008 and 2019. While cardiac arrest, heart attack, suicide, workplace accidents have accounted for a significant portion of the untimely deaths, the natural cause has been cited to have taken the highest toll. Intriguingly, the exact reason behind the so-called “natural deaths” remains mysterious and questionable. This gloomy outlook prompts us to revisit the quality and the access to health care services enjoyed by the migrants both in the labor origin and destination countries.
However, the relatively low COVID-19 induced deaths among the Nepali migrants suggest that the quality of health services provided to the migrants is satisfactory. But there are concerns that migrants who are asymptomatic or who have co-morbidities and have not undergone laboratory tests for COVID-19 may have lowered the figure.
It is worth emphasizing that the mental health aspect of migrants is not given an ample attention that it deserves. Research shows that pandemic tends to reinforce nationalism, which can cut the demand for foreign workers thereby increasing discrimination against them. As a result, the number of Nepali migrant workers seeking foreign employment may decrease in the upcoming years.
The situation can be even worse for undocumented migrants. Lack of proper work permit not only limits their access to health services, but also makes them vulnerable to exploitation. News reports say undocumented Nepali migrants are sparsely tested for COVID-19 in some labor destination countries. Under any such happenings, it may be hard for the migrants to find out where, to whom, and how to file their complaints and concerns.
In this fiscal year, the government has allocated USD 97.79 million to create additional 200,000 jobs aimed at accommodating returnee migrant workers. It is commendable that the government is making genuine efforts in prioritizing migrant workers. Equal access to such opportunity and an increase in psychosocial support scheme can be a real indicator of its effective implementation.