'I would rather quit than take back the decision of sending workers abroad under free visa and ticket rule'

The government has introduced the ‘free visa and ticket’ provision to send workers to seven major labour destinations — Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. Immediately after the government implemented the new rule on July 6, manpower agencies started protest programmes by halting their businesses and have demanded the government to either cancel it or put the provision on hold for some time. They alleged that the free visa and ticket provision that has been implemented due to the personal interests of State Minister for Labour and Employment Tek Bahadur Gurung will ultimately cut the demand being sent to Nepal and put their business at risk. Ramesh Shrestha of The Himalayan Times spoke to State Minister Gurung about the new provision, the dispute with agencies, and the rationale behind the new provision, among others.

What do you have to say about the ongoing protest of manpower agencies?

As I myself was previously involved in the foreign employment business, I know where things went wrong in the past. The free visa and ticket provision for the seven countries has been implemented after doing the required homework and consultations with labour ministers of the concerned countries. We also held discussions with Nepali manpower agencies. The seven destinations have over 2.5 million Nepali workers and they are also the countries where workers have faced more problems. Definitely, new rules will reduce the income earned by agencies as they used to charge higher fees from outbound workers by just sitting at their offices and paying commissions to sub agents. It might take a maximum of three months to see things getting back to normal to send workers under the new provision which is good for outbound workers as well as for agencies who are transparent in doing business.

But manpower agencies have stated that they will not send workers until the government rolls back the decision or keeps it on hold for some time for additional study through a high-level commission. What do you have to say?

They are in protest and have even demanded my resignation. But as the decision has been taken after extensive preparations and consultations with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and other top political leaders, we will not go back on our decision. Agencies should promote the potential of Nepal and deal directly with employers who provide free visas and tickets to workers and commissions to agencies directly. Under this provision, agencies can collect up to Rs 10,000 as service fee and this is what the agencies want us to increase. Basically, we want to control the expenses being borne by workers and the commissions being sent illegally by agencies to agents abroad. About Rs 40 billion to Rs 50 billion that is currently being sent annually as commission to agents abroad through non-banking channels will be blocked by this new provision.

Since Nepal has already been able to create a name for itself as the best labour supplying country, isn’t there a risk of labour shortage in the domestic market if this new provision attracts more Nepalis to foreign employment? Moreover, the government is also preparing to send female workers at free of cost as domestic helps.

Nepal has a good brand name when it comes to supply of workers. But due to the bad competition prevalent, there were instances whereby agencies brought in demands for any kind of work by paying a commission to agents in labour destination countries and workers were being sent at fees that were higher than what the government had permitted. This is one of the reasons why we find Nepalis facing enormous difficulties. Once the new rule is fully implemented, the trend of sending workers only to big and reputed companies agreeing to fund all the costs required to hire workers will increase, whereas demand from small companies that cannot fund hiring expenses will come down. This means less number of workers will be able to go for work. The decision of free visa and ticket was introduced taking into account the possible shortage of workers that the country could face during the reconstruction works in the country.

Do you mean to say that the quota for Nepal will come down?

As all the demands from the seven countries will require free visa and ticket facility for workers, this will reduce the quota and it will be beneficial for outbound workers. It is better to send 40 workers under this provision than sending 100 workers as per the old provision. Of the total demand being received by Nepal, 20-30 per cent have facility of free visa and ticket but manpower agencies are charging as high as Rs 90,000 from outbound workers. Expenses of manpower agencies have gone up mainly because they are paying commissions to four-five sub-agents by just sitting in their offices without doing any marketing. Those agencies which cannot abide by the new provision should be shut down. There are many other agencies that have welcomed our decision. Based on the new provision, we will also start marketing and promoting Nepal’s potential in the seven destinations along with agencies and journalists.

There are allegations that you imposed the new provision based on the interest of Bangladeshi manpower agencies and Malaysian companies that want to implement bio-metric medical test. What do you say about it?

The new provision was introduced solely for the benefit of workers and to help develop a proper system in the foreign employment sector which is in a mess at the moment. I have the support of the general public. I am clean and I am ready to face any allegation when working for a good cause. I challenge those who accuse me of working as per the interest of Bangladeshi companies to come forward with proof. Even the prime minister called me two to three times and enquired on whether the new provision was implemented without proper preparations. I informed the prime minister about the homework that we had done before bringing the new rule. If I do have a personal interest in it then definitely it will be exposed one day. If this decision is going to really hurt the sector as some people say then it can be changed later on. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Israel have been showing interest in implementing ‘government to government’ approach to hire workers, instead of involving manpower agencies.

What will be the next step if manpower agencies continue with their protest and it starts affecting foreign employment and those who are already in the process to leave for jobs?

We have already invited manpower agencies for talks. Informally, they have agreed to sit for talks only if I resign. There is no option other than mobilising the security forces if the obstruction in the regular work to send workers continues. Issuance of final approval for workers has been affected and workers who were supposed to leave for jobs have been stranded due to the ongoing protest. Before July 6, the date when the new provision came into effect, the government had issued 92,000 pre-approvals. So, manpower workers right now should concentrate on getting final approvals and sending workers as per the old provision first than making baseless allegations against me. I am confident that there will be no political pressure on me to withdraw the decision. And doing so would make the poor people who have been eyeing foreign employment unhappy. I do not have any personal interest in implementing this provision. There is no possibility of taking back this decision. If there is undue pressure and I have to withdraw the decision then I would rather quit this job and return to my private life.

What do you say about the possibility of illegal departure of general workers via India?

Mainly this is a risk related to female aspirants leaving for jobs as domestic workers. As we are preparing to send such workers under the new directive, the trend of illegal departure via India will get discouraged. As per the plan, workers looking to go abroad as domestic helps will be sent only if the employers agree to provide a minimum salary of $300 per month in Middle East countries. Workers will be first sent on a trial basis for nine months and after that such workers will be sent to only those countries that sign a memorandum of understanding with Nepal.