Govt will gradually address every problem prevailing in labour industry

Nepali workers are compelled to face various problems related to payment, safety and security in both domestic labour market and foreign employment sector. In a bid to safeguard the rights of Nepali workers in the country and in foreign destinations, the government has initiated a few reformative measures in recent times, including preparations to sign labour agreement with popular labour destinations and ensuring social security for workers in domestic labour market. Sujan Dhungana and Umesh Poudel of The Himalayan Times caught up with Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Security Gokarna Bista to know more about the country's labour market and the state of foreign employment sector. Excerpts:

What is your view on the present state of the country's foreign employment sector?

At present, we have been identifying problems and anomalies in the foreign employment sector and resolving them gradually. Undoubtedly, a lot of ill-practices have gripped this sector. As the foreign employment sector is directly related to people's livelihoods and the country's economy, the government has felt the need to make this sector more reliable, secured and transparent. For this, plans are in the offing to reform existing laws and policies in the sector and prioritise bilateral cooperation to address various problems being faced by Nepali migrant workers.

Problems like agents deceiving workers and companies breaching agreements signed with workers, among others, are rampant in the foreign employment sector. How do you plan to address these issues?

The government has been receiving various complaints from migrant workers like companies reluctant to implement the agreements, untimely payment, lack of insurance and security, delay in delivery of the body of deceased workers and various other forms of fraud. Moreover, Nepali migrant workers are compelled to undergo different legal hassles in the destination. In a bid to resolve such issues and ensure security and safety for Nepali workers, the government is holding discussions with different labour destinations, which are popular among Nepali migrant workers, through diplomatic channels. Similarly, we are also focusing on bilateral labour agreements with major labour destinations. It is essential that we send our workers to any labour destination only after signing bilateral labour agreement or government-to-government understanding. The aforementioned problems have been prevailing in the foreign employment since long and it will take some time for the government to address them completely.

One of the boiling issues in the sector currently is the stoppage of work permits for Malaysia-bound Nepali workers. When will this resume?

We have stopped the years-long practice of extra money being collected from Malaysia-bound Nepali workers through the establishment of different unnecessary firms in Nepal. Different firms like Immigration Security Clearance and One Stop Centre had been collecting money illegally from Nepali migrant workers, which has been stopped now. However, we are in discussions with the Malaysian government to resolve these issues and resume the flow of Nepali migrant workers to Malaysia as soon as possible. However, we have made it clear that any such firms should not collect extra fees from Nepali migrant workers regardless of any labour destination. Lately, the government has received positive signals from the Malaysian government over resolving the current issue. As the Malaysian government too is of the view that the trend of collecting extra fees from Nepali migrant workers and other prevailing anomalies have to be stopped, we are optimistic that Nepali migrant workers will get to go to Malaysia soon. However, it might take some time to resume the outflow of Nepali migrant workers to Malaysia as the government is preparing to ink a concrete labour agreement with the Malaysian government. As Nepal's economy relies heavily on remittance received from foreign employment sector, the government is committed to assure safety and security of Nepali workers in foreign lands.

Nepali migrant workers are facing similar problems in other destinations too due to lack of bilateral labour pacts. What is your take on this front?

We realise Nepali workers are facing problems in other destinations too. We will gradually sign labour pacts with major labour destinations of Nepali workers. Moreover, the government will also look into prospects of signing labour agreements with nations like Japan, Portugal, Oman, Mauritius and Canada, where payment and other facilities for migrant workers are comparatively better. Similarly, we are revisiting the labour pacts with countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Foreign employment sector can be made secure and well managed only if we are able to sign bilateral labour agreements with all major labour destinations and revisit such pacts time and again to make them more labour-friendly and contextual. Most importantly, the government will identify ample employment opportunities in the country itself so that no Nepali needs to seek jobs in a foreign nation after five years. This is because the present government aims to use its workforce for the development of the country itself. We want to transform Nepal into a prosperous nation using the skills and capacity of our own workforce. It is the freedom of people to travel abroad. However, we believe that no Nepali should be compelled to choose jobs abroad to run their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, how do you plan to reform the domestic labour industry?

We have already initiated various reformative measures in the domestic labour industry. They include increment in the minimum monthly wage of industry workers and the mandatory provision for employers to issue wages to workers through the banking channel. Most importantly, we have already brought the new Labour Act and Social Security Act, which intend to address major issues of domestic labourers, foster better relationship between industry and workers and make Nepal's labour market globally competitive. Similarly, we are planning to introduce various programmes targeting the unemployed force in the country. Meanwhile, a large number of domestic labour force is working in the informal sector and they need to be brought to the formal labour industry. Meanwhile, we have also prepared a draft of the Prime Minister Employment Programme, which aims to assure basic employment opportunities within the country. We are also transforming all labour-related works to digital format within a few months. All the activities through labour-related firms, including Department of Immigration, Department of Labour, Department of Passport, among others will be made digital soon. The Ministry of Labour and Employment is planning to initiate a few other reformative measures in the recent future which will be disclosed soon.

The government recently increased the minimum wage for workers to Rs 13,450 per month. However, workers have been saying that this is not life sustaining and contextual. What is your view on this?

Every time we revise the minimum wage for workers, we take inputs and suggestions from all the stakeholders. We had formed a minimum wage fixation committee comprising representatives of trade unions of workers, government and industries. The same committee had agreed upon to fix the minimum monthly wage of workers at this level. It has to be noted that the new minimum wage is an increment by 39 per cent compared to the previous minimum wage. This is where workers should rejoice. Every time we determine workers' wage, we should be careful that it does not adversely affect the industries or the workers. But it is true that facilities for workers have to be increased further to strengthen their livelihoods. The government will continue revisiting workers' minimum wage and other facilities in line with increasing inflation. What I would like to assure is that no worker, irrespective of the sector they are employed in, will be deprived of facilities and that will be safeguarded by law. We will also implement various social security programmes targeting not only workers but their family members too. The government will prioritise the implementation of labour-related policies, including Social Security Act and Labour Act. The labour force has a crucial role in achieving various growth targets set by the government. Thus, the government will focus on strengthening Nepal's labour force and boost their capacity.