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Migrant Workers Gaining a Voice in a Transitioning Nepal: Perspectives from a Global Justice Fellow

June 28, 2018

By: John Peng L’19

After its successful completion of federal, provincial, and local level elections in the summer and fall of 2017, Nepal took its first formal steps toward fulfilling its decade-long, constitutionally mandated transition towards a decentralized federal governance system. The elections, albeit messy, chaotic, and confusing at times, proved unexpectedly peaceful and brought broad hopes for stability to a country that has seemingly been stuck in a state of political transformation since the turn of the twenty-first century The 2017 elections represented the country’s first successful legislative election since 1999, when Nepal was still in the midst of civil war and under monarchial rule. Incoming Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli hailed the elections as a triumphant turning point for Nepal and ushered the country into a new era of prosperity.

Many Nepalis, however, do not share the prime minister’s unbridled enthusiasm. To them, the prospect of wholescale political change and the beginning of the long-promised decentralization process brings both cause for optimism and fear: optimism that this time will be different, that the country will be able to take advantage of its momentum and overhaul outdated administrative regimes; and fear that the government will become complacent with the positive optics created by the smooth administration of the elections and produce more of the same, stagnant policies and empty promises that Nepalis have grown accustomed to hearing.

In order to ensure that the decentralization process serves all Nepalis, the government needs to bring more people to the table —core among them, migrant workers. Accounting for approximately 30% of Nepal’s annual GDP, migrant workers have formed the backbone of Nepal’s economy in recent years. A conservatively estimated 1,500 Nepalese migrant workers leave the country each day in pursuit of foreign employment opportunities primarily in Malaysia and countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. The Pravasi Path (“migrant path”), while tumultuous and replete with risks both within Nepal and abroad, has become an increasingly attractive option for young and unmarried Nepalis. For many migrant workers, the path represents perhaps their only means of ameliorating their family’s economic conditions back home.

Crossing a variety of transnational and domestic issue areas, labor migration has traditionally been regulated exclusively by the federal government in Nepal. Labor migration is governed by the Foreign Employment Act 2064 (FEA), a piece of legislation that has received ample calls for amendment from the day of its enactment in 2007. Its institutions are presided over by bureaucrats stationed in Kathmandu and its legal disputes are handled by the Foreign Employment Tribunal, a specialized court also located within the capital city. The wide-ranging physical and legal centralization of foreign employment mechanisms commonly force migrant workers to travel through irregular channels, sacrifice access to government benefits, and forego opportunities to enforce their legal rights. Historically denied the right to vote while abroad, migrant workers have lacked a proper platform to articulate their challenges and sufficient political capital to influence meaningful reforms.

Migrant workers, however, are on the verge of gaining that platform. In April 2017, legal advocates from the Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice (LAPSOJ) brought a case before Nepal’s Supreme Court addressing migrant workers’ disenfranchisement while residing abroad. After nearly a year of oral arguments and deliberations, the Court issued a directive on March 23, 2018 instructing the Nepalese government to grant all citizens working abroad the right to vote. Barun Ghimire, program manager at LAPSOJ, lauded the Court’s decision, stating, “Millions of migrant workers are working in foreign lands in deplorable conditions. Problems facing them go largely unheeded. If they get a chance to vote, the political parties, wishing to grab their votes, may start talking about them loudly and protecting their rights.”

Reflecting on the news from the United Arab Emirates where he is currently working, Surendra Shrestha, a migrant worker who assisted LAPSOJ, expressed, “This is a significant development for us. If the government makes the proper arrangements, I would be happy to vote. If all of us migrant workers could vote, the government and leaders of Nepal would have to start listening to us.”

Nepal stands at a critical juncture. For the country to chart a successful path towards decentralization, it must incorporate more voices than it ever has before. Giving migrant workers the right to vote represents a step in the right direction.

The Global Justice Fellowship (GJF) helps support JD students interested in international public interest internships during summer break. The program is designed to immerse students in the law and legal culture of another part of the world and to work on the most pressing global issues facing the world today.

This piece originally appears in the 2018 Global Affairs Review.

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