When the Malaysian government announced its new minimum wage policy last May, there was a sense of jubilation among Nepali migrant workers in the South East Asian country of 29 million. The new policy would raise minimum wages of migrant workers by as much as 60 percent; and as many as 400,000 of the estimated 700,000 Nepalis working in Malaysia would benefit. But few predicted the plight of the remaining 300,000 to get worse. Malaysian employers have unexpectedly cut their wages and benefits, purportedly to meet the new minimum wage requirements. But underpay is far from the only worry of Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia. According to a government report released last June, as many as 1,850 Nepali workers had died in Malaysia since 2003. Of the 1,596 deaths since 2005, most were attributed to medical conditions, absence of proper training and improper pre-departure orientation.
The lapses in the foreign employment regime have led to other serious consequences. Last September, around 600 Nepalis working for a glove manufacturer in Kuala Lumpur had to go on a strike for weeks to protest their ‘exploitation’. Now, over 1,000 Nepalis working in the same city have been stranded for months without work. The 1,126 Nepali workers at a digital camera company in Kuala Lumpur have been made redundant after the company, citing deep financial crisis, expressed its inability to keep them on its payroll. Sadly, even as Nepali workers are being exploited and their rights violated so blatantly, the Nepali Embassy in Malaysia has been of little help. The situation is so bad the stranded workers complain that as soon as the embassy officials hear the name of their employer over the phone, they hang up. Nepal’s glaring failure to safeguard the rights of its workers in Malaysia was clearly brought to the fore in a 2010 Amnesty International report that was prepared after interviewing 200 Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia. But precious little seems to have been done (on the part of both the countries) to end exploitation like forced labor or confiscation of passports by employers, both of which were cited as big problems in the 2010 report.
The Nepali state’s apathy is hard to justify. Migrant workers are the country’s lifeblood; the remittances they send make for 23 percent of national GDP. But the state has clearly failed to carry out its responsibility towards this all-important section of the population. The unscrupulous recruiting agencies that sell inflated hopes to workers, leaving thousands of them stranded in the middle of nowhere after milking them dry, are yet to be brought to book. Likewise, absence of proper training and pre-orientation (as much as 75 percent of prospective migrant workers are poorly trained) continues to put countless Nepalis in harm’s way. Careless pre-departure health screening alone results in hundreds of deaths. All this goes to show that the safety and rights of Nepali migrant workers is clearly not a government priority.
Unless the issue gets the seriousness it deserves, hundreds of thousands of Nepalis will continue to be exploited and forced to work under dangerous conditions. Nepal government has to step up to the plate to take care of its own people. Otherwise, as the case of the Nepali workers now stranded at the digital camera company in Kuala Lumpur illustrates, even well-meaning measures of labor importing countries can backfire.