The government, in recent times, has introduced various programmes like the Prime Minister Employment Programme and Social Security Scheme and also revised the Labour Act to address issues related to workers. However, the situation is quite grim when it comes to Nepali migrants working in foreign destinations. Time and again migrants have had to face problems related to equal pay, safety and security at their workplaces. Though the government has been trying to promote domestic labour market, the outflow of workers has been perennially rising. Against this backdrop, Umesh Poudel of The Himalayan Times caught up with Richard S Howard, director of International Labour Organisation, Nepal Country Office, to know more about the prevalent labour issues. Excerpts:

What is your view on the current labour market of Nepal?

The policies and laws that the government has introduced or revised, like the Labour Act and Social Security Act, are among the best in Asia from the ILO’s perspective. Labour laws in Nepal are very flexible and address the concerns of both employers and workers. For instance, the government has introduced ‘hire and fire’ policy for employers, but it also allows workers to negotiate with the management. This ultimately will help raise the productivity of workers. The major challenge now for the government is how those laws and policies are implemented in the federal structure that Nepal has adopted. The federal system of governance is very good, but it increases the difficulties to properly implement the laws.

The government has been running different employment generation-related programmes, including Prime Minister Employment Programme. Do you think such schemes will help reduce country’s unemployment rate?

I think such programmes have the potential to reduce the country’s unemployment rate. If these programmes are properly implemented, it will help develop a vibrant and open economy, which in turn will help reduce unemployment. Moreover, when the domestic economy is vibrant, it will attract more investments, both domestic and foreign. It will also create a favourable environment for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). But it will take some time. So, we need to be patient. The PMEP is a very good concept whereby it will help reduce the number of jobless people. Moreover, the data the programme collects will help the government keep track of the number of people unemployed and help it frame other policies and programmes. However, what has to be noted is that such programmes are for the short-term and for long-term sustainable growth, the government needs to focus on the private sector because the private sector is the actual driver of the economy. What we need to realise is that when the private sector booms, it helps generate employment within the country. I feel that in the PMEP, the government has failed to introduce elements that will create sustainable jobs for the unemployed people. The initiative taken by the government is praiseworthy, but it has failed to address sector-wise employment issues.

Though the government claims to have promoted win-win situation for workers and employers through the recently revised Labour Act, there are still issues like the minimum wage provision that is yet to be fully implemented. What do you have to say on this?

When the government introduced the minimum wage criterion for workers, the issue was widely discussed. And when it was being introduced, we saw a lot of coordination among the government, private sector and the trade unions, which is a good thing. However, the implementation aspect has been rather slow. For implementation of the minimum wage provision to gather pace, we need to improve on two aspects — labour administration and labour inspection. I personally feel that the government is moving in the right direction, but to develop a strong labour inspection mechanism, it requires a lot of resources — financial and human. The government needs to also develop a mechanism whereby the minimum wage is revised in a timely manner.

On one hand, the government has been introducing schemes to promote employment within the country, while on the other, it has been signing bilateral labour pacts with various countries which effectively promotes outbound migration. Don’t you think this is contradictory?

What we have to be aware about is that no country will be able to stop its citizens from migrating for better job opportunities. What we can do is reduce the number of workers going abroad by creating more jobs within the country and providing better salaries. Since it is next to impossible to stop people from migrating, moreover when globalisation has been gathering pace, what the Nepal government could do is look for better deals regarding wages and other facilities for its workers. When workers send remittances from abroad, it helps the economy too. So, trying to stop outbound migration is not practical. It is not possible for the government to create jobs to accommodate all the workers that enter the labour market every year, so people will migrate to foreign destinations for jobs. For instance, the Philippines has been making huge investments to create domestic jobs, but that has not been sufficient and it is one of the highest labour-exporting nations. At the moment, I think outbound migration is not that bad for Nepal, but what the government could do is focus on sending more skilled workers. There are people who talk about braindrain, but this is a problem due to lack of job opportunities and not solely because people want to work abroad. If there are jobs in the country that match the skills of the workers and the pay is good, I strongly feel people will not migrate. Meanwhile, since people will keep migrating abroad, it would be smart on the part of the government if it can sign labour agreements with labour destinations that are beneficial for Nepali workers, as this will ultimately help not only the workers’ families but the national economy too.

As per ILO convention, labour receiving countries need to assure the wages and facilities for foreign migrant workers are similar to what their citizens get. However, destination countries have failed to do so. What is your take on this?

The ILO convention was ratified with the coordination of different stakeholders, including workers, employers, labour-sending countries, labour-receiving countries and different trade unions, among others. The ILO convention clearly mentions that labour-receiving countries have to provide equal treatment to foreign workers. However, the ILO is not the concerned authority to implement all the provisions that are mentioned in the convention. We just create a forum to hold discussions on various pertinent issues. Having said that, what I would like to add is that we do try our level best to make sure that the provisions mentioned in the convention are implemented by all the member states. I think we have to be pragmatic and negotiate the best deal possible with labour-receiving countries for Nepali migrant workers. ILO has a clear perspective that Nepali migrant workers need to receive the same wages for the same category of jobs that migrants from other countries receive. As per the ILO convention, workers have the right for collective bargaining even in foreign job markets. They can push for wages and facilities that are at par with what the domestic workers of the foreign destinations get. The government should now strongly urge receiving nations to follow that provision. On our part, the ILO will definitely negotiate with destination countries on behalf of migrants for better pay and facilities. In fact, ILO has been doing its best to make the lives of migrants better in various countries, especially in the Gulf. And Qatar is one good example, where the government has started making changes in its policies related to foreign workers and is providing better treatment as compared to previous years. If migrants are deprived of equal treatment, they can lodge a complaint at our governing body and ILO will try to facilitate the concerned workers for further steps.

A recent report of Central Bureau of Statistics shows women in Nepal earn 30 per cent less than their male counterparts despite having the same level of education. What do you think is the reason behind this huge gender pay gap?

This is a deep-rooted problem in the entire South Asian region. It is basically cultural discrimination, as it is taken for granted that women cannot work as much as men. This problem is actually global, and even in the developed countries we can see that female workers earn 20 per cent less than the males. I feel we need to change the individual mindset, whereby most think that women cannot perform at the same level as men. The world has changed a lot in the past few years, and we can see women being involved in all types of sectors, so this discrimination needs to end and it needs to end immediately. We need to seriously look into this issue. However, Nepal is far more active than other South Asian nations regarding such issues and I am sure the government will look into it and sort out this problem.