Shalini Gupta and Arjun Kharel
Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility
Under the AGRUMIG research project, the Nepal team has engaged with different stakeholders to facilitate discussions and identify key policy issues on migration and agriculture governance in Nepal. Small group in-person meetings and more extensive national and sub-national level consultation workshops are the common modes of engagement. The first national-level workshop organised in August 2019 provided a forum for stakeholders to discuss and identify key policy issues in migration and agriculture and form a community of practice (COP). This COP then further refines the policy agenda and brings strategies forward for discussion, while engaging with national, provincial, or international governing bodies across different forums in pursuit of policy change.
The COP comprises migrant networks, trade unions, farmer federations, international and national non-government organisations (I/NGOs), experts, researchers and media and government line agencies from federal, provincial and local levels. Broadly categorised into four groups of stakeholders, the first group comprises those working on migrants’ rights and engaging with migrant workers in various supportive ways, including skills training, counselling, legal support for access to justice, and rescue and repatriation of workers from overseas. The second group comprising the I/NGOs working in the agriculture sector, farmer groups and agricultural cooperatives, advocates for the welfare of farmers as well as migrant workers and their families. The third group comprises international organisations like UN Women and the International Labour Organization as well as government agencies at national and sub-national levels, such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Land Management and Archives, Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, Foreign Employment Board, and municipality representatives, all of which have critical roles in policy formulation and/or implementation. The fourth group consists of the direct beneficiaries of different programmes implemented by government and non-government agencies such as returnee migrants, returnee migrant households and farmers.
Key Policy Agenda
In addition to sharing the AGRUMIG research findings, the consultation workshops have focused on eliciting discussion and achieving consensus among members of the COP on critical policy agenda items on migration and agriculture. Two key policy agendas repeatedly explored during the workshops are reintegration of returnee migrants and the challenges facing the agriculture sector.
Reintegration of returnee migrants and the mass return of Nepali migrant workers from overseas at the onset of Covid-19 is one key concern. Explaining the slow national response to support returnee migrants, Rajan Prasad Shrestha, Executive Director of the Foreign Employment Board, said, “I feel that we haven’t been able to do anything more than be a helpless observer of our brothers and sisters who were forced to return or who became jobless in foreign countries during Covid. We do not have any programs to show as opportunities to our young people to stay back”. The idea of “reintegration” began to gain currency in the government only after the pandemic, he said. The COP noted that despite the presence of policies to support reintegration of returnees, there was a gap in implementation, mainly due to lack of resources, lack of clarity on the roles of the three levels of government, and finally, no mechanism in place to ensure accountability by those responsible in case of non-implementation.
Stakeholders in these meetings have highlighted how the agricultural sector offers challenges and opportunities for Nepali youths, including returnees. Members of the COP suggested that farmers had been unable to scale up their agricultural businesses due to significant hurdles, including low investment potential, small land holdings, lack of market integration, and inadequate access to farm inputs. Government subsidies and support were not oriented to small-scale farmers and had served the interests of elite industrialists instead. Jagat Basnet of the Community Self-Reliance Centre, an NGO working on farmers’ rights, noted that a reliable market is a significant issue for farmers, “Had there been a guarantee that the farmers’ produce will have a market, thousands of farmers would be ready to produce. But our market mechanisms are such that the imports and the middlemen have monopolised the market. The farmers are price takers at both the points of buying and selling. Farmers come across as very ‘vulnerable individuals’ and have very little collective bargaining power ”. Hence, small farmers, including the returnee migrants from these farming households, have no other option but to (re)migrate.
Other policy agendas that emerged in these workshops were excessive recruitment fees, fraud and deception in the migration process, discriminatory gender-based migration policies in Nepal, and the productive use of workers’ remittances. The COP pointed out that despite the commitments of the government in different forums and the adoption of a ‘free visa, free ticket’ policy (which allows collection of a maximum NPR 10,000 from migrant workers) for migration to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Malaysia, workers have been consistently paying over NPR 100,000 for labour migration to these destinations. Many migrant workers are deceived into doing different work and paid lower wages than originally mentioned in their contracts. Women migrants’ organisations have highlighted how travel bans made by the Nepal government have in fact violated women workers’ right to mobility and increased the risk of human trafficking as women then rely on unauthorised channels for migration .
The use of remittances by migrant households has been a concern of policymakers in Nepal. The SaMi project, implemented through a partnership between the governments of Switzerland and Nepal, has provided financial literacy targeting migrant households. Ganesh Prasad Timalsina, Assistant Executive Officer (HoD) of the Nepal Federation of Savings & Credit Co-operative Union (NFSCCU), who worked with SaMi for more than three years in the past on providing financial literacy training to families of migrant members, said that the program has been “very effective. Hence, after the end of our collaboration with the SaMi project, the NFSCCU is still running the financial literacy training.” Overall, there was a consensus among COP members that the government and development agencies could work together to make migration more beneficial to the migrant households and communities .
The Nepal AGRUMIG team will continue working with the COP to develop strategies that take the policy agenda forward and contribute to policy changes that can improve the experiences of migrant workers, including returnee migrants. The goal of further interactions with and among the COP will be to develop a draft Action Plan for Improved Migration Governance by the end of August. The draft will be shared with the COP for validation and feedback at a national-level workshop in Kathmandu in September. A final draft of the Action Plan for uptake will be ready by October.