Left behind, anxious and forgotten: the impact of COVID-19 on the wives of migrants
Originally Published in MIDEQ (Migration for Development and Equality) on 15 October 2020
COVID-19 poses unique challenges to migrants globally. Largely, South-South labour migration does not allow for family reunification, and parents, wives and children are often left behind. Male migration in south-Asia is often driven by the need to ensure the wellbeing of family members, but the impacts on the wives, ageing parents and children left behind are often negative. The adverse effects of COVID-19 on migrant workers often trickles to the family members left behind but remains largely ignored in the current mainstream discussions, which largely focuses on remittances, the impact on national economies or migrants’ welfare.
Increased economic distress for migrant families
Labour migration to the Gulf countries and Malaysia is a major livelihood strategy of Nepali people. The demand for foreign employment is strong; in the fiscal year 2018/2019 alone, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE), the government body regulating foreign employment, issued 2,36,208 labour permits for aspiring migrants. This is an average of 650 people per day.
In Nepal, 56% of households receive remittances in Nepal. And migration contributed to 28% of GDP in 2018. The ADB estimates there has been a 27.8% drop in Nepali remittance in 2020. An estimated 67,000 Nepalese migrant workers have returned to Nepal during the pandemic and 60% of those who migrated 2 years ago will have returned in the next few months as their 2-year contractual visa expires. Jobs loss is significant; out of the 500,000 Nepali workers in Malaysia, 30% have lost their jobs. Loss of income and job opportunities in countries of destination is having a critical impact on these households.
Aside from a few families who had other income sources such as a small business or in agriculture, the pandemic has adversely affected if not put an end to migrant families' income. The distress on family members was clear in our MIDEQ interviews. One of the most pressing concerns for wives in this new situation was economic dependency. A majority of wives left behind have less formal education and contribute to household labor through productive (such as engaged in agriculture) and reproductive roles while not taking paid jobs. Others left-behind family members are children or older parents. Remittances from family working abroad are the main, if not the only, source of income for them. Wives and parents are accustomed to regular transfer of remittances.
Women already borrowed money from community savings – a revolving fund established in the community through monthly savings where interest rates are determined by members themselves and where members can take a loan to cope with the loss of remittance. Until they pay off the current loans, they will not get additional loans. Loss of remittances has meant they have no source to pay it. Before lockdown, it would have been paid from the remittances.
The economic and emotional impact on family left behind
Uncertainty and lack of regular information is another pressing challenge for the wives of Nepali migrants. As human beings, we crave security and like to have control over our lives and well-being and that of our dear ones. Not being in such a situation leads to feelings of powerlessness and is a source of anxiety and stress.
Uncertainty about income and whether migrants can come home back to their family has heightened. Women are fearful about the security of their husbands in destination: fear of infection but also security issues such as surveillance and potential human rights violations. The fear is not unfounded, as security and violation of rights have heightened the current situation for migrants.
For wives, news from destination countries is a constant reminder of what their spouses’ future is likely to hold. Particularly women who have lost regular connection with their husbands are experiencing double trauma; they are worried about the lack of information but also scared by news of growing infections, deaths and human right violation in countries of destinations. These fears are not unfounded: 38,034 Nepalis have been infected with the virus in various destinations and 531 Nepali migrants' workers died in the last 6 months. Reintegration is not easy: wives fear their husbands might face potential stigmatisation as COVID-19 carriers once they come back to the community.
Nepalis abroad are also feeling the impacts
The prospect of having to return empty-handed, indebted, and with no way forward has created a sense of hopelessness, longing and desperation among Nepali migrants. This anxiety is reflected in their conversation with their wives, which adds to their worries and anxiety.
In the initial days of lockdown, the husbands were strong and used to say things like, “things are fine" and that “they are carrying out their daily life well". However, as the crisis prolonged and adversity increased, Nepali migrants have started breaking down and asking families not to depend on them. For many wives in Bardiya, for example, this idea of not depending on their husband is new and unexpected, and they are unprepared for this physically and emotionally:
My husband often tells me that, it is my responsibility to look after my two daughters as he has no earnings there. Sometimes I can't control myself and start crying.
Reintegrating returnees in Nepal
After a considerable effort, the Nepal government has actively started the repatriation process. While there are challenges and gaps related to the process, after a long anxious period on both sides, migrants and their families will be able to meet each other. Whether they re-migrate or stay back will be their own decision; the government is trying to create an environment where they can exercise their freedoms and not be forced into foreign employment.
In the current budget (2020/21), the government has allocated USD 97.787 million for creating additional 200,000 jobs and is prioritising returnee migrant workers in those jobs. However, neither the wives of migrants nor the migrants themselves are aware of or actively looking for information regarding the state services and plans for migrants. This also includes services such as psychosocial counselling to deal with stress. The only support for dealing with stress is sharing with peers and neighbours who face the same challenges. This information needs to be disseminated through the local government to the people through the ward representatives.
With so many Nepali migrants returning home from working abroad, sectors such as industry, tourism, agriculture and ICT would greatly benefit from their knowledge. As a short-term intervention, the government needs to continue providing subsidies, relief, and engaging return migrants in short-term paid work. In the longer run, the central and local government should introduce social security schemes such as health and business insurance and enact strategies to encourage entrepreneurship amongst returnees arriving back with new skills.
In sectors such as agriculture, many youths in Nepal hesitate to get involved and instead would rather work abroad. Introducing tools and replacing manual work could help make the industry more youth-friendly and attractive. Migrants who have worked in agriculture in the GCC and Malaysia can also be an asset.
As the impacts of the pandemic continue to affect Nepal, individuals, communities and governments should utilize the knowledge and skills of returnees to create income-generating activities for themselves as well as for their fellow community members.
Diversifying the roles of recruitment agencies for post-pandemic livelihoods in Nepal
Originally Published in MIDEQ (Migration for Development and Equality) on 30 September 2020
The current pandemic has negatively affected the global economy. The world will reportedly lose $8.5 trillion in output over the next two years. If economic downturn is inevitable in all countries, Nepal will surely be impacted.
Nepal's economy relies on the export of its human resources, tying it to the health of the global economy. An estimated 2 million Nepalis work overseas. And every year around 500,000 youth tries to go abroad to work. The future of Nepali migrant workers abroad, and aspiring migrants, therefore depends on global economy as well as global health. Recruitment agencies, which typically support Nepali workers going abroad, are increasingly playing a role in supporting migrants returning home during the pandemic.
Not all bad news: Nepalis are coming home
Around 250,000 Nepalis working abroad lost their jobs within the first two months of lockdowns being implemented around the world. The loss of jobs and complete halt of youth joining the global workforce market seriously jeopardize remittance earnings sent to the Nepalese economy.
However, as saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining”. The increase in migrant returnees has been a positive development. Internal migrants who left urban areas such as Kathmandu are returning home to actively help in agricultural activity. The introduction of amnesty in the Gulf and Malaysia has paved a way for the safe and legal return of labour migrants who were dispossessed of their documents, and were thus staying illegally.
A larger majority of Nepali migrants work in low-skilled jobs such as construction, and many of these projects have been halted due to COVID-19. For example, 33.5% of migrants working as physical laborers have lost jobs. A large share of migrant returnees will therefore have experience in the construction sector.
Workers who have lost their jobs, along with those whose contracts have expired and who remain undocumented, expect the government to take action to bring them back home. The government has given COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) the responsibility to manage people seeking to return to Nepal and those who have started the return process. To accommodate them in the labour market once they return, the government is planning to generate an additional 2.5 million jobs within Nepal in various sectors.
The recruitment industry at a standstill
The pandemic has also affected the various intermediaries that play multitude roles in connecting aspiring migrants to their jobs in destination. The industry of foreign employment in Nepal has come to a complete stop. “Recruitment agencies”, which are part of larger intermediaries, have been directly affected by the pandemic.
There are 854 agencies (known as recruitment agencies or locally as “manpower”) and an additional 50,000 brokers operating in Nepal’s recruitment industry. Recruitment agencies are globally recognised as “merchants”, “predatory princes”, “princely peddlers” and a “necessary evil”, and they are part of a much broader, extensive labour migration system. The recruitment agencies in Nepal are also known for their, unethical behaviour, exploitation, and rights’ violation are norms.
However, we should recognise that recruitment agencies and brokers play an important part in creating employment prospects for Nepalis both in Nepal and abroad. Despite the pandemic, they will continue to be an important part of migration for the foreseeable future. Hence, we should be sensitive to the impact of the pandemic on the industry, and on the migrants who rely on them, as their operations stop completely. The recruitment agencies who are legally registered, compared to the almost non-existent legal brokers, have enough lobbying power to make the Nepali government respond to their loss. As a start, the government is preparing to remove “the provision that any agency should send at least 100 workers abroad in one year to renew its licence”. However, this has been criticised as a step backwards from the gains achieved in the fight against unethical practices of recruitment agencies.
Recruiters have a chance to help migrants returning home
There are alternative solutions. While they may not be able to find jobs for migrant workers in other countries may be in the current pandemic, recruitment agencies can play a role in “protecting migrant workers”. In fact, as IOM Deputy Director General Laura Thompson highlighted, recruiters are already helping migrant returnees:
Recruitment agencies are also on the frontlines of helping migrant workers get home and supporting those who have already returned to access social assistance, seek alternative livelihood opportunities and navigate the challenges related to reintegration in a time of mandatory quarantine and social distancing.Recruitment agencies could therefore be of immense help in protecting migrant workers. The IOM Nepal has conducted a survey by working alongside recruitment agencies, “to better understand the Covid-19 impacts on migrant workers in Destination countries and PRAs in Nepal”. The report emphasises that recruitment agencies are important resources for ensuring migrants’ welfare during and after the pandemic
By virtue of connecting job seekers with employers, recruitment agencies have a greater knowledge of the skillset each migrant has and their employment history in destination countries. Hence, they have an efficient mechanism for targeting specific groups of job seekers and their level of expertise. As pointed out by the ILO, private employment agencies are hugely beneficial due to their “ability to intervene rapidly and efficiently in a designated sector of the labour market”. Likewise, they also have long experience in “finding, screening and preparing candidates” for labour markets.
With government agencies planning to generate an additional 2.5 million jobs within Nepal, and their niche in the labour market, recruitment agencies can play a catalytic role in matching the skillset with the job requirement. For instance, the orientation class given to migrants going abroad could be used to match return migrants with various government schemes. Recruiters can base this on migrants’ interests in entrepreneurship and give them information about how to access these schemes.
An opportunity for employment in Nepal
On the other hand, the government pride projects were in shambles due to various reasons well before the pandemic. One of the problems identified by the Federation of Contractors Association Nepal (FCAN) is brain drain in the sector. The government commitment to continue with big development projects during the pandemic has provided an opportunity to employ migrant returnees in the 21 national infrastructure pride projects. Finding, screening, and connecting the migrant labour force with experience in the construction sector, particularly those who worked in massive projects and have a knowledge of operating machinery as well as manage the projects to various government projects, could support the progress of national pride projects.
Besides the traditional role of Nepalese recruitment agencies sending workers abroad, now is an opportunity to diversify their roles and use them as a resource to connect government and private agencies with migrant workers. This collaboration has the potential to enable returnee migrants to seek an alternative livelihood in Nepal, as well as be economically viable for the recruitment agencies at a time when their entire operation is on standby. Therefore, there is an opportunity for recruitment agencies to provide an alternative means of job matching as their core service, not for labour markets abroad but within Nepal.
Originally Published in Gender & Adolescence: Global Evidence on 30 September 2020
Discrimination in labour markets remains a significant roadblock to achieving gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.
Earning an income is of profound importance for women and girls’ wellbeing. In Central and South Asia, the number of women in the labour force has decreased by 2% (from 36 to 34). While girls are slowly overtaking boys in secondary education, women and girls continue to be left behind in the labour force. Even when employed, women’s employment is increasingly concentrated in low-paying, service-sector occupations.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has revealed – more than ever – why it is important to ensure women and girls (of working age) need to earn an income. In Nepal, financial dependency on men is the main cause of exacerbated rates of gender-based violence and women taking risky jobs during the pandemic. It’s also why UNGA and Beijing +25 must adjust the world of work equitably to the unique needs of women and girls but also empower them to fare better in it.
In Nepal, GAGE has found critical evidence as to why girls are not equipped for dignified and safe work:
Families are contradictory spaces for the empowerment of women and girls. Conservative gender norms often make it challenging for individual women and girls’ to enjoy their fair share and rights and families rarely work as shock absorbers for women and girls as they do for men and boys. Understanding how and why this happens, and how we can work around it is important.
Parents face normative and practical barriers in making families equitable for girls. Marriage is largely understood to be the ultimate success for girls. Social norms prescribe that the duty of parents towards a daughter is to marry her off to a good home as soon as she comes of marriageable age, to ensure she has a secure “home” of her own for the rest of her life. Parents who allow girls to opt for higher education or careers are stigmatised for neglecting their duty. Girls who are not married beyond a certain age are seen as failures even if they have successful careers. In Nepali society, where preferences for young brides makes marriageable age very low ( 19-25 years on average), parents have a hard time finding a groom if girls are older and the marriage usually requires the girl to compromise as a return for her age.
Furthermore, parents are stigmatised for using girls’ incomes for household expenses, whereas boys of the same age are expected to earn for the family. There is no direct incentive for families to invest in girls’ skills or education over early marriage. Growing up in this environment, girls usually have limited career aspirations and succumb to early marriages arranged by their parents. They fear the consequences of late marriage, and rarely think of negotiating investment in their education.
It is critical that Beijing +25 invest in families and girls to help them work towards upskilling adolescent girls. It should work to create pathways from education to earning an income, and highlight the importance of investing in adolescent girls for better job outcomes later.
Here are four priorities for Beijing +25 and investment in adolescent girls:
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