Supreme Court orders government to use welfare fund to repatriate Nepali workers stranded abroad
17 June Kathmandu : The Supreme Court has issued an interim order to the government to use the foreign employment welfare fund to repatriate Nepali workers living abroad in highly vulnerable conditions.
The order is expected to provide relief for tens of thousands of migrant workers who have been stranded in several countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic and are unable to finance hefty chartered airfares to fly back home. A single bench of Justices Ananda Mohan Bhattarai and Hari Prasad Phuyal on Monday issued the order.
The bench has asked the government to immediately rescue the Nepalis who have gone for foreign employment with labour permits, as they have made contributions to the welfare fund. They have been stranded in various countries as international flights have been suspended since March 20, four days before Nepal imposed a complete lockdown, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government has suspended scheduled international flights until July 5. “It’s the responsibility of the government to rescue the stranded migrant workers and send them to their respective destinations when they arrive in Nepal,” said the bench. “Nepalis go abroad to work not only for their personal economic gains; they also make huge contributions to the country’s economy.”
Nepali migrant workers sent home $8.1 billion in 2018, making it the 19th biggest beneficiary of funds sent by migrants around the world, according to a report by the World Bank. The money remitted by migrant workers is equivalent to 28 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product.
The court ordered an immediate process to rescue them by a ‘judicious utilisation’ of funds. It also ordered discussions with the writ petitioner and all concerned stakeholders while formulating repatriation guidelines.
The ruling came in response to a petition alleging that the government’s executive order to repatriate Nepali nationals was against the legal provision of rescuing stranded workers who are unable to pay for their flight tickets.
Hundreds of migrant workers who have been criticising the government’s delayed response to bring them home had to face another storm when the government unveiled the chartered fare list for 25 destinations which they said was three times the normal rate.
The petitioners had demanded that the case of migrant workers should be viewed in a different light, as they contribute to the worker welfare funds.
On June 5, nearly two and a half months after Nepal enforced the lockdown, 169 Nepalis arrived from the United Arab Emirates-the first batch of workers to return to Nepal. But those who arrived home then either paid airfares on their own or they boarded the plane at the mercy of the companies they were working for.
The Nepal government, however, is in a dilemma whether to charge the workers or arrange flights for free for the returning citizens.
Industry insiders and rights activists say since the government has been charging workers and depositing the contributions to fund, it cannot make them pay for their rescue.
According to advocate Krishna Neupane, secretary at the People Forum for Human Rights-Nepal, a migrant rights group, the government should cover the expenses of helpless workers, who were in various destinations but lost jobs due to the pandemic, and now are unable to return home.
“But if the government starts free repatriation, even those who can bear the expenses could line up for free repatriation,” said Neupane. “Therefore, the repatriation guidelines are a must as they will help find out who all are in need of help and whose situation is bad.”
More than Rs 6 billion has been collected in the worker welfare fund, and its purpose is to utilise the money when they are in a crisis. Most of the workers have already gone broke and are unable to finance their flights back home, as they have lost jobs in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On May 25, in order to rescue the citizens stranded abroad, the government issued an ‘executive order’ to facilitate the repatriation of Nepali nationals who have to return home due to the pandemic. The order said that the repatriation expenses of Nepalis should be borne by them.
Advocate Som Prasad Luitel, one of the petitioners, said they have pleaded that facilitating the repatriation of Nepali nationals and migrant workers does not mean the same thing.
The Foreign Employment Act, 2007 clearly stipulates the criteria for mobilising the fund, explicitly taking into reference the situation of ‘return and repatriation’ of Nepali migrant workers as one of the conditions for mobilising the welfare fund.
In Monday’s interim order, the court has also asked the government to write to the concerned diplomatic missions to protect the interests of Nepalis abroad in accordance with international laws under the guidelines of the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization.
“The interim order clearly says that the government should use the foreign employment welfare fund to bring back those workers who are stranded without jobs and cannot afford airfares,” Luitel told the Post.
“The government should have done this on its own as the existing laws say the fund could be utilised in times of crisis. It should have been a regular process, but we had to move the court to make the government responsible for those who are in trouble.”
According to Neupane, a large number of workers are unable to buy tickets because of their financial conditions after they lost their jobs even before their terms ended.
“They need to return home now and the state must come to their rescue,” he said.