CPN-UML Secretary Gokarna Bista had earned a lot of appreciation during his short stint as Minister for Energy in 2011. He is a Minister for Labor, Employment and Social Security in K P Sharma Oli’s government. What are his plans to make foreign employment dignified and secure? How does he assess the current situation in this sector? Thira L Bhusal and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with him Tuesday morning.
How do you assess the situation of foreign employment at the moment? What will the government do to make it more rewarding?
Nepali people are going abroad to find jobs because we have no enough jobs within the country for them. Every day nearly 1,500 people leave the country to find jobs. Thus the first priority of the government will be and should be to provide as many jobs as possible within the country itself. We need to create opportunities in labor market within the country and fulfill our needs from our own resources. We will have to bring credible, effective and implementable programs along with laws to enforce them as effectively.
If we cannot provide employment to our people within the country itself we won’t be able to achieve our goal of attaining national prosperity. So far, this has not been our priority. Now it should be our foremost priority for development of human resources, identification of job resources and job creation. We need to create harmony between our human resources and labor market needs. There are gaps at the moment. Sometimes we have a lot of work in our labor market but there are no human resources and other times we may have a lot of human resources but no sufficient jobs within the country. These gaps must be filled. The state will focus its attention on this.
Unless we can create enough jobs for our youths within the country, the problems we are facing in foreign employment sector will continue. Foreign employment is not the first priority of our youth. It has become a compulsion they cannot escape. We need to end this situation very soon. How long will we be able to sustain as a country by sending our youth away? Should not we bring necessary steps to change the situation?
Not all are going for foreign employment through legal channels by obtaining labor permit. They choose illegal channels as a result of which they face a lot of problems. We in the ministry of foreign employment can track only those who go out through the official channels. But I am aware of the fact that I need to take steps to destroy this nexus of agencies or individuals who send workers through illegal channels. The government has the responsibility to address the problems of the workers of both categories.
You outlined current situation of foreign employment. What have you done specifically to address these problems?
Actually, there is a need for a broader reform in foreign employment sector. We need to introduce new laws to address some of them. Besides, if we can make our missions abroad more proactive many problems can be solved. For this we need to delegate specific authorities to them and at the same time ensure that they fulfill those responsibilities. Most important, we need to educate those aspiring to go abroad for jobs on new cultural, social and economic settings in which they will have to work and live. We should not forget the fact that a youth who aspires to go for foreign employment has to go through various difficult and unnecessary steps before the youth obtains labor permit. They face many hassles along the way. They incur huge debts. There are national and international laws to monitor and properly manage foreign employment. We have not been able to do that properly.
What are some of the steps you have taken recently to manage foreign employment in better way?
I have had a wide range of consultations with government agencies, experts, former bureaucrats, the victims and other stakeholders. I have taken their feedback and suggestions. I have seen that we need to make maximum use of technology to properly manage foreign employment sector. I have been doing a lot of homework in this regard. It might take some time to develop the new system to address all these issues. I can only assure you that things will not remain the same in this sector. We will introduce new policies and programs that will bring about visible reforms in this sector. You will feel the change soon.
One of the urgent tasks for you will be to break entrenched nexus of so-called manpower agencies affiliated with various political parties. Many of them are found to put workers in a difficult situation.
Rest assured. I will not protect any manpower agencies if they are found to be involved in illegal activities. They will be punished. If manpower agencies have become the partner to crimes and are abetting trafficking of human resources they will face the consequences. There will be zero tolerance for them. We will deal with them very cruelly. My attention has been drawn toward the issue you just raised. They won’t be spared.
It sometimes feels like we have a way too many manpower agencies. Don’t you think it is time for the government to intervene?
We need to assess at which level the government can intervene and take up the matters in its hands. The government won’t be able to do everything on its own. The only thing it can do and must do is to bring them under a legal framework and make them strictly abide by government regulations. We have been studying the experiences of other countries which send their workers in foreign employment. We will emulate their best practices. Like I said, the situation in foreign employment sector won’t remain the same in the days to come. We will make foreign employment safe, reliable and hassle-free.
Cannot we introduce something like Employment Permit System (EPS) for workers going to Gulf and Middle East as well?
In this context, I have focused on the government to government (G to G) system while sending workers abroad. This can minimize a lot of irregularities. Besides, if we select workers based on their skills and expertise required in labor-receiving countries, they will be able to earn much better. Our workers should be paid in parity with workers of destination countries if they are doing the same type of jobs. And then there is a need to ensure that the money earned by Nepali workers is sent home through banking channels. It should not be forgotten that our economy is actually sustained by Nepali workers abroad. They contribute to one-third of our total GDP. We will make the foreign employment competitive and rewarding. We will ensure that our workers do not land in the countries with which we do not have had labor agreement.
Right after you assumed office you declared to provide labor permits from places outside the valley. What is the progress?
There are technical aspects which need to be settled. But I can tell you that the system of providing labor permit from out of the valley will start in around one and half months. I have already taken the decision and directed the line agencies to work toward this end. We are trying to decentralize the system in such way that workers from, say Bhairahawa or Nepalgunj, do not have to come to Kathmandu even for simple services. If we can do this, a lot of anomalies will be resolved.
You say so but the youths have to stand in serpentine queues for the whole day even just to deposit exam fee at a bank counter for EPS tests. Cannot we simplify such basic process?
Before I became the minister, this system was already in place whereby the workers will have to pay their money only through certain banks before they sit for exams. Then I immediately called the meeting and we have taken the decision whereby any bank can receive the payment and workers can pay through digital banking system as well. I hope from now on workers do not have to face such kinds of hassles. We will not allow any kind of syndicate to run and thrive in such sensitive areas of work. Besides, we are also assessing the situations of workers who are in the countries with which the government has signed labor agreement and those with which we have not done so. We are studying the matter in depth. We will assess the provisions of MoU that have benefitted our workers most and we will give continuity to the best practices. The bottom line is Nepali workers most benefit to the maximum level possible and their interests and security should be best protected. This will be the guideline to sign MoUs with other countries in the days to come.
In your view, what are some of the fundamental reforms that we can immediately introduce and implement to regulate foreign employment?
First, we need to make the process of obtaining labor permit easy and hassle-free. I have already taken a decision in this regard. Second, we need to make the process of certifying the demand letter more authentic and reliable. Third, we need to document the skills, expertise and knowledge the migrant returnees bring home when they return so that when they go back for foreign employment again they can be employed in the sector they have the best expertise in. Fourth, we need to make our workers skilled enough before they embark on foreign jobs. If we can equip our workers with necessary skills, they will get better jobs and they will be paid better salaries as well. So the focus is on skills and training. Fifth, we can ease the hassles they have to face from the day they leave home to the time they reach the foreign destination. Apart from that, we need to enhance the effectiveness of our missions based in labor-receiving countries so that they can work to solve the problems they face there. We are coordinating with Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this connection. We have identified the problems, we have thought out solutions as well. We only need to align this with process and laws. The anomalies facing today will be rooted out. Let me tell all the workers in foreign countries: If you are facing any type of problem there, you can immediately file a complaint online. We are soon going to introduce this system. For those who are aspiring to go out: there will be visible reforms in this sector in a matter of few days. We will exploit all potentials and mobilize all resources to make foreign employment dignified and secure. Nepali workers in foreign countries won’t have to feel guardian-less. The government will provide them guardianship. The government is seriously working to make it happen. You will feel the change soon.