By Mahendra Subedi
Kathmandu 24 Nov 2014 : Labor migration in the South Asian countries, except Bhutan and the Maldives, has become a key source of foreign earning and the lifeline for South Asian economies.
Poverty–South Asia’s worst malaise, lack of infrastructure development, sudden rise in young population, greater connectivity with the outer worlds due to globalization and, most importantly, gap in wages have encouraged the 1.5 million plus people every year from the region to leave for destination countries for earning.
Many economists and experts term the labour migration a â€˜slow poisonâ€™ based on the impacts on national economy and a â€˜forced cup of teaâ€™ due to lack of employment opportunities in the sending countries while others argue labour migration as an unavoidable global phenomenon claiming that it results in higher living standards and better education for their children.
Like other SAARC nations, the Gulf countries are the major destinations for around 2.5 million Nepali migrants though Nepal has opened a total of 109 nations for foreign employment. Of them, over 97 percent of the total Nepali migrants are working in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The remittance amount send by Nepali migrants is nearly 25 percent as the share of countryâ€™s GDP and received by 56 percent households. In the last fiscal year alone, more than 492,000 Nepalis have left home for foreign employment in search of green pastures.
According to the official record, the daily remittance inflow from official channel in Nepal is roughly Rs 2 billion plus which is nearly seven times higher than official development assistance and five times higher than export earnings.
In Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka remittances are larger than the countries’ foreign exchange reserves revenues from exports while remittance in India in 2013 was 70 billion US dollars–more than the earning from country’s software services exports, the World Bank said.
According to the World Bank, India remained in the top position of remittance receiving countries with 70 billion US dollars in 2013 while Pakistan brought in 15 billion US dollars and Bangladesh 14 billion US dollars, securing their spots in the worldâ€™s top 10 remittance receiving nations.
Bangladesh has sent around 7 million workers to over 140 countries since the mid-1970s mostly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia while 1.7 million Sri Lankans are working abroad sending roughly 7 billion US dollars at home.
India, as one of the largest labour-sending countries in the world has contributed the most with 22 percent to Qatar’s 1.2 million migrant workforces (equal to Pakistan) while the Indiansâ€™ number in Saudi Arabia is nearly 2.5 million and nearly 3 million in United Arab Emirates. Likewise, the number of Pakistani migrant workers is sizable in the Gulf Nations and other parts of the world totaling more than 7 million.
Another SAARC member Afghanistan has been using the labor migration as a contributing factor to poverty reduction, employment generation and women empowerment. The newest SAARC member has the vision to promote decent work for Afghan workers (men and women) overseas.
On such backdrop, the 18th SAARC Summit is due to discuss the issues pertaining to migration and trafficking in humans for the first time. The proposal is expected to witness extensive discussions on making a common voice on labour migration.
Expert on labor migration and former member of the National Planning Commission Dr Ganesh Gurung suggested that the 18th SAARC Summit should focus on minimum standard wage and benefits by the labour sending countries.
“If we can agree not to send the workers on less than the fixed amount of wage and benefits, this could be a large benefit to migrant workers,” Dr Gurung argued. Stressing for a meaningful discussion on labor migration in the 18th SAARC Summit, Dr Gurung added, “SAARC will hold little meaning for large number of workers who go from these countries if this Summit does not agree to discuss this issue.”
Likewise, Mr. Maurizio Busatti, Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Nepal, says, “As the entire South Asia is affected by and experiencing labour migration mobility and share to a good extent the same dynamics challenges and poles of attraction, the countries of this region could devise useful approaches to migration of labour.”
Asked whether the SAARC nations could push for some policy reforms relating to migrants’ issues in the receiving countries, Dr Gurung said, “A collective bargaining is possible because if SAARC nations do not send labourers to the gulf countries, there will be a hue and cry.
This is possible if SAARC nations are united.” He even went on to say that Qatar would be unable to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 if the SAARC nations stop sending the migrant workers.
Busatti also observes the need for a single voice in labour migration stating that this was certainly a desirable option though the regional mobility is compounded by a number of sensitivities linked to the complex geo-political scenario and this makes it difficult to discuss migration and find a minimum common denominator at regional and multilateral level.
“There could be some thought to get up during the upcoming SAARC with an intra-regional labour migration protection framework that could be practiced within the SAARC region to protect the rights of the labour migrants within the region though not exactly the same format like the ASEAN and the EU have some regional frameworks to regulate the intra-regional migration movement,” the Chief of Mission of IOM said.
Diaspora Coordinator of INF Paul Hagen opines that the SAARC nations are required to make a common voice to make the labour migration safer and dignified adding “If SAARC nations could provide both internal and external migrant labourers’ safety and secure ways to get their earnings home would help lift the economies of the regional countries involved.”
Finally, raising the issue of labor migration in the 18th SAARC Summit is a welcome step. Now, the SAARC leaders should come up with the strategic plans to promote and safeguard the human rights and dignity of the migrants so that only receiving country would not be benefitted just by getting the cheap labourers from the SAARC region. Besides, the SAARC nations are required to prepare a labor migration bond to mobilize the large amount of remittances from their migrants in a bid to boost up their economies.