KATHMANDU, Nov 6: When Nepal introduced the free-visa-free-ticket policy in July 2015, workers and rights groups hailed it and hoped the internationally acclaimed scheme would bring down the costs of finding work overseas. But that couldn’t happen mainly because of the failure of the Nepali side to take worker-destination countries into confidence before unveiling the ambitious scheme.
Now that the major destination countries in the Gulf and Malaysia are gradually conceding Nepal’s demand to make the recruitment process less expensive and more transparent, Nepal faces yet another challenge to its zero cost recruitment goal: red tape and associated unfair charges.
While the exorbitant fees that manpower agents and companies charge workers often came in for censure, stakeholders have turned a blind eye to an overly centralized process wherein layers of government and private agencies charge the workers left, right and center.
Workers going to the Gulf and Malaysia currently spend between Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 in addition to the service charge they pay the agent, thanks to costlier passports and a bureaucracy spanning multiple agencies that wants its cut.
Chhetu Mahato of Saptari went to Qatar after the low cost scheme came into effect. But he was forced to pay Rs 90,000. He was given a receipt for Rs 10,000 in service charges.
“The agent was initially demanding Rs 100,000 but he gave a discount of Rs 10,000 after I told him I would rather stay back home,” Chhetu told Republica. In addition to the recruitment fee, Chhetu had spent around 50,000 for obtaining a passport, undergoing health screening, training and pre-departure orientation and buying insurance policies which are mandatory for workers bound overseas.
There are multiple agencies – accredited both by Nepal and the destination countries – to facilitate the whole process. But the services they offer are quite expensive because only selected firms are eligible to provide them. For instance, only medical agencies recognized by the Gulf countries are eligible to provide health screening services to workers going to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There is no such restriction on Nepali insurance companies, but the policies they sell the workers are still far costlier than in other countries in the subcontinent.
Nearly all these agencies are based in Kathmandu. As a result, workers from far flung villages have to spend a lot on travel, food and accommodation.
“Workers from eastern and far-western Nepal end up spending Rs 20,000 just to be in Kathmandu for pre-departure orientation, which by itself costs only Rs 1,000. This is really unfortunate,” said Ganesh Gurung, an migration expert.
Like the private agencies, the government also has been charging high fees for basic services. For instance. Nepal’s passport may be one of the least powerful travel documents in the world but it’s not much less expensive than the passports of powerful countries.
A new passport with 32 pages costs Rs 5,000 if obtained through the normal process, which takes two weeks to three months depending on the district. The cost for urgent processing is three times higher.
The free-visa-free-ticket scheme requires employers to bear the expense of visa processing and air travel for workers from Nepal. The Oli government has made efforts to implement the policy but without much success.
While some employers have been providing air ticket and visa fees, a vast majority of Nepali workers are still forced to pay exorbitant amounts to manpower companies and agents, according to various studies.
Meanwhile, foreign employment agencies have been protesting free-visa-free-ticket. They say it flies in the face of the basic principle of demand and supply.
“There has been a significant fall in the demand for Nepali workers because of the policy. The labor-recruiting countries have been looking elsewhere in South Asia,” said Kiran Kishore Ghimire, former chairperson of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies. He conceded that the agencies are still charging way high while giving a receipt for just Rs 10,000. He said the scheme was also preventing agencies from paying more by way of taxes to the state.
The Ministry of Labor Employment and Social Security (MoLESS) appears aware of anomalies prevalent in the sector, especially in relation to the free-visa-free-ticket policy. But it also appears determined to press on with the policy. Since he took office in February, MoLESS Minister Gokarna Bista has been pressing the destination countries to come into line. Malaysia has already agreed in writing, while negotiations are underway with countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“Decisions that are in the interest of workers will be gradually enforced. Other decisions will be taken as needed if the existing policies prove inadequate for protecting the rights of workers,” Bista told Republica.