Essay : ‘Migrant workers in Pandemic and State responsibility towards them’

Law Hub Nepal वैशाख ३१, २०७७
  • Namita Regmi


Covid-19, a pandemic has a huge impact in the lives of MW. The month longer countrywide lockdown has worsened the lives of those persons who used to depend on daily basis wages. GON including various development actors has taken several control measures of covid-19 pandemic but still MW are suffering. This paper deals with the situation of Nepali MW in the foreign land.


History of Labor Migration:-

Nepal, a beautiful country home for many people has the long history of migrant workers. The history of formal labor migration begins in 1814-1816, after the Nepal-British India war. A total of 4,650 Nepalese youngsters were recruited to the British armed forces as a British-Gurkha regiment after the conclusion of the war and signing of the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Similarly, the migration of Nepalese people for other employment purposes, such as working in the tea states of Darjeeling and the forest of Assam, India, began in the second half of the 19th century. Economic migration to the Middle East from South Asia and other parts of the world was spurred on by the oil boom in the early 1970s. International labor migration, mostly to Gulf States, Malaysia and other South East Asian countries is a new phenomenon of migration in the Nepali context with about a 30 years’ history. Unexpectedly, foreign labor migration has developed in such a way that it has shifted the agricultural-based Nepali economy towards remittance-based economy (DoFE, 2014).

The number of job aspirants in foreign land increased dramatically, especially after the restoration of democracy. The Labor Act, 1985 came as a boon for facilitating foreign employment and opening up avenues for the private sector. With the enactment of Foreign Employment Act, 1985 and arrangement of distributing passport to the potential migrant workers by the District Development Offices, accompanied by higher demand for labor created by the oil boom in the Gulf, the Nepalese started to migrate beyond India, particularly to the Gulf. Now, till today there are 110 countries where GON has approved for the Working Visa.


In a simple sense, A migrant worker is a person who either migrates within their home country or outside the country to pursue work and they usually do not have the intention to stay permanently in the country or region in which they work.

According to the article 2(1) of the International Convention on protection of the Rights of All Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families, The term “migrant worker” refers to a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.

A “migrant worker” is defined in the International Labor Organization (ILO) instruments as a person who migrates from one country to another (or who has migrated from one country to another) with a view to being employed other than on his own account, and includes any person regularly admitted as a migrant for employment.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines migrant workers as casual and unskilled workers who move about systematically from one region to another offering their services on temporary, usually seasonal basis.

Present situation of migrant workers:-

Foreign Migrant Workers:-

According to migration in Nepal Report, there are an estimated 500,000 Nepali Migrants in Malaysia, 400,000 in Qatar, 334,451 in Saudi Arabia, 224,905 in UAE and 70,000 Nepali migrant workers in these countries which are considered as the main workers taking countries. These five countries alone accommodate over 1.5 million Nepali’s and there are other many European countries where Nepali people work as workers. Nepal has received lot of remittance from those migrant workers. As the volume of remittance significantly increased in the recent past from, 254 billion USD in 2010/11 to 879 billion USD in 2018/19 which is equal to 26% of total GDP of the country.

From the above data we can say that, the economy of the country is highly dependent on the remittance that are sent by the migrant workers working in the different countries and due to the outbreak of Covid-19 these workers are suffering from the different problems.

Condition of MW in foreign Countries:-

As we all know that, Covid-19 is extremely Contagious, and the GON has barred all international flights or we can say has imposed knockdown from March 24, keeping Job-seekers home and stranding Mw in their destination countries, even as work visas expire which create a lot of problems for the MW.

The Covid-19 crisis has already put many Nepali Migrants out of works. As fears of a pandemic spread in February and early March, 67,020 MW returned home to their hometowns and villages in Nepal. But most of the migrants were prevented from returning after the GON has announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24. Some of them were able to maintain their jobs abroad, but many others were fired or took unpaid leave and are living off meager savings due to the economic crisis and closure of all the factories, industries etc where they work.

Reports have been emerged of workers being forced into unsafe, crowed conditions in Malaysia and Qatar. In the United Arab Emirates, some Nepali has been evicted from their homes by blaming that MW is the factor for the spread of the pandemic. Meanwhile, hundreds of Nepali remains stuck at the Indian border, having walked for hundreds of miles through the Indian lockdown only to be denied entry by the Nepali police. Some workers even risked their lives trying to enter the country by swimming across the Mahakali River.

Similarly, especially the women who are working as a domestic worker in the foreign land is suffering from the additional role of caregiver, risk of being overworked and will be denied to have their one day leave in the week. Undocumented workers are also at risk, finding themselves without the protection of either the host government or their own, and maybe reluctant to seek medical care for fear of detention.

In the gulf countries where there are Nepali migrant workers, they are suffering from difficulties as in Qatar as per the report submitted by the Amnesty International, that they are being taken by the police by saying that they were taken for Covid-19 test and would be allowed to return to their accommodation afterwards but were taken to the detention centre and kept in inhumane conditions as they were held in overcrowded cells without bed or bedding, and not given enough food or water and some of them are still doing their work in the construction sites in the 2022 FIFA World Cup even in the low pay and in that crowed places due to which there is more chance of spreading Covid-19.

Manu Kafle, whose husband works in Kuwait as a security Guard, resides in sunsari. She says the Kuwaiti Government has imposed a curfew, but that her husband is still working. His company has provided him with the necessary preventive measures, she says, but he too lives with four other people in a single room through which there is a high risk of having the Covid-19.

These two are the only examples to show how the MW is suffering in the foreign land due to this pandemic. There are many other such cases where not only Nepali but MW from other countries is also suffering. The total number of NRN to die worldwide till Saturday, April 25 evening from Covid-19 has reached to 49 and the total number of infected has so far reached 1,983 as per the NRN Association Health Committee Coordinator, Dr Sanjiv Sapkota.

Conditions of MW in foreign Countries:-

Similar is the condition for the MW within the country as we can hear the news that many of the MW working in the capital or other parts of the country leaving their own home suffered a lot by the lockdown imposed by the GON. They due to the economic crisis started to go back to their home by walking miles and miles.

State Responsibility for the foreign Migrant Workers as well as for the domestic migrant workers:-

For all these problems what my personal opinion for the GON is that:-

One of the main source of government revenue (income) and the income of Nepali citizens is foreign employment.

Nepal is far behind in industrialization, we don’t have many job opportunities, GDP and PCI is poor and the progress is very slow. In such scenario our entire nation is dependent upon our workers working in foreign countries and who remit income in Nepal.

This shows the importance of migrant workers in Nepal.

Seeing this from safety and health perspective of such workers: majority of migrant workers are youths and young people, they are future of Nepal in economical, social and cultural, demographic and all other aspects. If their health is at risk during pandemic, it’s the risk to our whole nation. It is the prime responsibility of GON to protect its citizen within country and migrant workers who are abroad.

MW in contrast with other Nepali citizens or NRNs in foreign countries: Foreign Employment is not an option for many Nepali, it is the bitter reality, for we have very low employment opportunities, and GON has promoted policies for foreign employment rather than formulating policies for generating employment opportunities – former option has always been easier for the government. But tourists, students and NRNs other Nepali who are outside have chosen to do so. They have chosen to leave nation for foreign countries, temporarily or permanently. If we see from this perspective, migrant workers should be highly prioritized.

Having said all this, GON can’t take care of its citizens or migrant workers who are abroad. However, Nepal has embassies and consulates in most of the countries where Nepali citizens go for employment.Respective Embassies have to closely work with the government of the country where they have been dispatched. At the same time, Embassies should work in closely with federal government in Nepal to ensure all available measures in response to COVID-19.

We can see recently in Kathmandu and Nepal how Embassies like Germany, Swiss, US have taken measures. They have chartered flights to take their citizens out of Nepal to back to their country which shows that they are very responsive towards their citizen then why not Nepal. Our Nepali Embassy abroad also has to work like that as we know Nepal is in lockdown and airports and borders are shut down. So, GON can at least send NAC aircrafts to rescue migrant workers from countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, UAE and yes, Right to Return is the fundamental right of the migrant workers and it is also ensured in the  Section 75 of the Foreign Emplo1yment Act, where it is mentioned that when “workers have to be immediately brought back to Nepal due to a war, epidemic, natural calamity in the country where such workers are engaged in employment, the GON shall make arrangements for repatriating such workers. But in my opinion doing like this in this time is not a good option because this pandemic is not spread in one or two nation but all across the world, 210 countries suffered from this pandemic and there are more numbers of Nepalese MW across the world and it costs lot of money to send NAC aircrafts to bring all those workers and to send them again after the pandemic and it is the time of the economic crisis so spending the money for that purpose is not a good option and “In the Gulf and Malaysia alone there are 1.5 million legal workers.

And also, it is found that 77% of the foreign people want to return Nepal and Also Nepal has only 34,394 Quarantines beds and 3126 isolation beds till today which is not sufficient to put them all in the quarantine for the certain days. And also, we can see that the people who are tested covid-19 positive in the initial phase in Nepal are the one who comes from the foreign country and if all the MW are brought to Nepal then there will be more risk of spreading the covid-19 in Nepal also.

So in my personal Opinion, GON should work with the embassies across the country where there is Nepali MW and the embassies need to be proactive to ensure their well being. They need to maintain a database on Covid-19 cases among migrants and reach out them instead of expecting them reach out to the missions. GON should also ensure that missions and embassies disseminate correct and timely information to migrant workers in countries of destination because The Migrant Workers Recommendation, 1975 (No. 151) provides that all appropriate measures should be taken to prevent any special health risks to which migrant workers may be exposed and has to maintain an adequate and free service to provide migrant workers with accurate information in a language which they can understand on health conditions in the place of destination. At work, employers should take measures so that migrant workers fully understand instructions, warning and symbols related to safety and health at work, including related to COVID-19.

Also the GON, should look into the current initiatives of the other migrant sending countries as the Philippine’s $200 financial aid to Filipinos and pakistan’s swift repatriation and welfare assistance to its migrants in Kuwait , similarly, GON should provide financial assistance and relief to the MW who are in need across the world through the help of thee Migrant Labor Workers Welfare Fund.

And in case of the domestic MW, GON should work with the local level and in my opinion it is better to keep all the MW in that place where they are residing by providing them basic needs for their survival because sending them home is not an good option because many few people are tested for Covid-19 in Nepal and what if the MW are suffering from the pandemic like we can see the condition of the Udayapur and this is the time to maintain social distancing rather than gathering with the family. And it is also found that the GON has taken good initiatives for the welfare of the Domestic MW or the person having low income as we can see that the Relief Incentives for unorganized workers by GON.

But, in this too the corruption occurs as we can hear the news of not maintaining the standard of the food as well as not giving in the same amount as mentioned by the GON.
Distributing food in a massive scale, pressing employers to pay wages, landlords to waive at least half rents and immediately set up shelter and community kitchens for those who are in the most need, by taking measures to maintaining physical distancing can be the another ideas that a GON can initiate to ensure the rights of MW in the pandemic.

Some countries or the some so called upper class people have blamed MW for the spread of the covid-19 and has stigmatized them and for that Psychological Counseling can also play a great role for the MW in the pandemic and the GON through the help of different awareness raising program should start the counseling because mental health is important.

The Nepali authorities must also call on host governments to include migrant workers in their responses to the Covid-19 Crisis. Under International Human Rights Law, States have an obligation to uphold the human rights of all individuals within their jurisdictions.

Nepal’s authorities should also use diplomatic channels to ensure host governments to protect the rights of MW by making them assurances that MW will not be penalized if their Visas expire during the crisis and are unable to extend or return Nepal due to the lockdown.

Thus in conclusion, Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health issue but is also an economic issue for MW and MW have contributed for the economy of the country to afloat during the decade long armed conflict, or during the devastating earthquake in 2072 by sending billion of money in the form of remittance and in this pandemic they are in distress and they need their government to do something for them and for this, GON should work shoulder to shoulder with the civil society on the response, including with many non-governmental organizations already providing relief.

Abbreviations :
MW : Migrant Workers
ILO : International Labor Organization
GON : Government of Nepal
NRNA : Non Resident Nepali Association
DoFE : Department of Foreign Employment
GDP : Gross Domestic Product

(Author Regmi is studying BALLB third year in Kathmandu School of Law.)

This essay has won the first position in the national level online essay competition organized by the Far Western Law Students Society. The best essays in the competition will be published by Law Hub Nepal respectively.

The Far Western Law Students Society is a common organization for students of Far Western province studying law in various campuses across the country. It aims to provide legal aid through social awareness and to develop the personality of law students by organizing various creative programs.

At present, the global corona pandemic is endangering the lives and livelihoods of Nepali migrant workers. The society has decided that the state should play an important role towards migrant workers. Therefore, this competition was organized with the intention of assisting the state through the ideas of law students. – Editor)

तपाईंको प्रतिक्रिया व्यक्त गर्नुहोस् ।