March 1, 2023
KATHMANDU – The restrictive policies over the years, regarding labour mobility of women, have made them vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour, observers say.
The anti-human trafficking bureau of the Nepal Police is quite busy nowadays.
It picks up nearly two dozen individuals, mostly women, and takes them to its office from Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport daily, suspecting them as potential prey of human trafficking rackets.
They are released following a counselling session. Some miss their flights.
The majority of the individuals picked by the police, possess visit visas for the Gulf countries.
“We bring them to the bureau for counselling,” SP Narahari Regmi of the bureau, told the Post. “They are instantly released,” he said. “Two-thirds are women.”
The numbers have been increasing.
“The trend has not stopped even after the counselling. They seem desperate to go abroad, by any means,” Regmi said. “We have many instances that the same women have been brought to the bureau for counselling multiple times.”
The lack of opportunity at home has forced many young Nepalis to go abroad. Lately, the number of women has increased noticeably.
In the last three fiscal years, 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, even as the Covid-19 pandemic strangled the economy and rendered tens of thousands of people jobless, more than 1 million Nepalis left the country to find work in faraway lands, according to a recent government report.
Amid worsening political instability and slowing economic outlook, Nepal may see a record-high number of migrant workers travelling to foreign lands in the current fiscal year. The share of people going abroad on a visit visa is also high, but they are not accounted for in the migrant workers’ category.
According to the government’s data, 418,191 new and re-entry labour permits were issued in the first half of the current fiscal year, which began in mid-July last year.
An estimate by the International Labour Organisation shows that around 41.5 percent of the 169 million international migrant workers in the world in 2019 were women.
In Nepal, however, women account for less than 10 percent of the total labour approvals every year.
But observers say the actual number of Nepali women migrant workers is much higher than what official data show.
They said most of the women are forced to migrate through “illegal” channels because of the state’s restrictive policies on labour mobility.
Nepali women’s migration has long faced a series of bans over the years, affecting their right to free movement and seek employment.
Although men and women are both equally at risk of trafficking, the restrictive policies are in place only for women, they argue.
Such policies have made women more vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour.
“In our society, there is a psychological pressure for men to go for foreign jobs. The women, however, are seen through a victim-centric lens,” said Meena Poudel, a migration researcher.
Such an approach has long been criticised for putting women workers in trouble.
In a landmark decision in September 2020, a parliamentary committee directed the government to allow women to work in Gulf countries as domestic helps after banning them for more than three years.
The government had restricted their movement abroad, citing widespread abuse and exploitation.
The committee, however, has set some conditions to allow their labour migration.
Observers say these conditions are impossible to implement.
Some of the conditions include—ensuring workers’ basic rights like wages, weekly and annual leave, social security, and occupational and health safety.
Aspiring women workers should have training in domestic help, a basic understanding of the local language and culture, rituals and mandatory training in the host country before starting work.
The government has tightened the visit visa rules after complaints from many countries.
In March last year, the Department of Immigration issued a 17-point regulation to address visit visa-related issues.
Among the provisions, only those individuals who have a record of travelling to the Gulf, twice, in the past are allowed to go there on a visit visa.
Many women have been barred from travelling to the Gulf by citing ineligibility according to the visit visa rules.
The majority of the individuals rescued by the anti-trafficking bureau from abroad from the fiscal year 2018-19 to mid-February this year have been women.
“Of the 464 persons rescued, 254 were women including 26 below 18 years of age,” according to the bureau’s data. “Of the 72 individuals rescued in the current fiscal year, 47 were women, including four below 18 years of age.”
Most of the victims happen to be the ones who had gone for foreign employment through illegal channels, according to SP Regmi.
“Though we restrict them at Tribhuvan International Airport, cases of women taking India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar routes to go to the Gulf have increased,” said Regmi.
“We receive requests for rescue every day,” said Regmi. “Currently the bureau is in the process of rescuing 24 individuals–13 women from Kuwait, Oman, India, Syria and Dubai and 11 men from Myanmar.”
Usually, a woman seeking foreign job happens to be the marginalised, according to Manju Gurung, co-founder and strategic advisor of Pourakhi Nepal, an organisation working for the rights and welfare of women migrant workers.
“The minimum monthly wage of Rs 15,000 is not enough for such women to run their families,” Gurung said. “They can earn at least twice the amount as domestic help abroad.”
The stigma associated with women’s interaction outside the home, especially in the case of single women, has largely affected women’s right to labour mobility, said Priti Shrestha, programme officer at UN Women.
“The same attitude that society has towards women’s right to move and work has been reflected in the state’s policies,” said Shrestha.
“As the women are barred from using the door, they have no other choice but to escape through the window,” said Poudel. “The first thing we need to effectively address the issues surrounding foreign employment is the integrated migration policy.”
Migration researchers say there is a need to strongly raise the issues related to the exploitation of women workers on the national and international platforms and at bilateral meetings.
Kabiraj Upreti, deputy spokesperson at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social security, said the ministry has sent a draft to review the existing provision for labour migration of women domestic help to the Gulf nations, to Nepal’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
“We are yet to receive the feedback from the ministry,” Upreti added.