Is Nepal's New Labor Ban Futile?

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Sep 9 2012

Nepal and the Philippines recently announced intentions to reduce labor migration to the Gulf. Nepal will begin prohibiting female under the age of 30 from migrating to the region, while the Philippines is seeking to gradually terminate domestic worker migration to all nations over the next five years.

Nepal's ban on workers to the Gulf applies only to females under the age of 30. This number seems rather arbitrary, as domestic workers of all ages face the same difficulties. The consulate's explanation of the age barrier is:

In the past, the embassy has fielded complaints that the maids "did not know how to take care of kids", he said. "Women who crossed 30 years of age, they would have good tolerance towards kids."

and

We decided to put age bar because mature women can better protect themselves. Other South Asian countries also have similar provision. The Gulf countries themselves suggested to have such provision.

The Nepalese governments seems to have selected the number '30' based on the assumption that, if domestic workers do not anger their employers by their "inexperience", they will be subject to less abuse. This logic justifies the abuse of domestic workers who are perceived as "incompetent" or "lazy" by their employers and fails to address the veritable causes of migrant worker exploitation - primarily, the lack of enforced regulation. Furthermore, the assertion that women over 30 "can better protect themselves," arrantly deflects government accountability (once again). Thus, the ban fails to provide any additional protection for domestic workers who will continue to work in the Gulf.

Nepal attempted to impose a moratorium on all migrants to the Gulf last year, after determining that the GCC nations' regulations did not fulfill a newly determined set of criteria. But after lifting the ban in June of 2011, the conditions facing Nepalese workers remains stagnant. The renewed ban effort itself illustrates the continuity in domestic worker conditions - and consequently the ineffectiveness of such policies. Yet, these same strategies are mobilized once again.

Nepal's ban simultaneously acknowledges the absence of protective legislation for domestic workers while implicitly refusing to pursue its development. Previous bans have illustrated the ineffectiveness of such policies in terms of both short- and long-term goals. In the short term, domestic workers are no more protected than they were before; domestic workers in contract remain employed by their sponsors, with absolutely no change to their well-being. In fact, conditions may worsen for migrants who attempt to bypass the bans and enter into these countries illegally through other countries or through traffickers. This puts migrants at much greater risk, as the process of entering the country is extremely dangerous, and their undocumented status means they do not enjoy the meager protections offered to legal migrants. Illegal migrants often work without contracts and at the mercy of their employers to avoid encountering authorities.

In the long term, there is little perceptible impact on labor rights or conditions; for example, receiving nations rarely feel pressured enough by the threat of labor shortages to effect tangible change in legislation or enforcement. They can simply obtain more workers from other nations, as despite their reputation for migrant worker exploitation, migrant workers from across the globe still flock to the Gulf. In some cases, such as following Indonesia's bans, nations appear to initially acquiesce to a handful of government' demands. However, these efforts generally fail to come to fruition, either because the proposed legislation does not pass or because any new regulations are poorly enforced. Subsequently,the bans are reversed but the status quo is effectively maintained. And several months or years later, the pattern begins anew.

The Philippines' objective is, officially, not a "ban" to punish any particular country but to circumvent abuse by fulfilling employment needs "at home". Nonetheless, the policy reflects the reasoning shared by Nepal and other nations that have attempted such bans - that it is impossible to protect the economic rights and safety of domestic workers. Yet it is evident that these nations do not dedicate enough resources to promoting and protecting these rights; unresponsive consulates, weak monitoring efforts, and generally apathetic officials are among the deficiencies of foreign labor institutions. These shortcomings are in turn evident in the protracted issues migrants face, including difficulties obtaining expedited repatriation following absconscion or sickness, the paucity in official support to resolve sponsor issues, and the abandonment of migrants accused of crime.

Not all countries are equally guilty of these errors and some, including the Philippines itself, have made notable strides in addressing institutional blind-spots. But bans, full and partial, represent the continuation of policies that fail to address these migrant worker issues head-on. Some nations may avoid confronting labor-receiving countries on the subject of exploitative conditions because they fear compromising a critical economic relationship. But the issues above can be easily improved without much involvement from receiving nations - in particular, by simply extending the labor ministry or consulate involvement in these arenas. Nations do need to cooperate closely with one another to advance migrant worker rights, but the ability of sending nations to single-handedly improve conditions demonstrates that immediate progress is attainable - contradicting the concessionary conceptions that undergird these bans.

One may wonder why workers continue to migrate to the Gulf despite awareness of its risks. The answer is opportunity. The extensive availability of employment has attracted migrants, many of whom reign from very poor countries, for the past decade. The Gulf, despite the risks it may pose, offers migrants an unmatched chance to improve the livelihood of themselves and their families.

For these reasons in particular, governments cannot eliminate the choice of those who wish to work in Gulf. Rather, they must focus on creating an environment that ensures the safety and fair treatment of migrant workers. Nations must take accountability for the rights of their citizens and should work diligently with receiving nations to formulate solutions that are productive to both parties. Guarantees of migrant rights requires regulation by both government entities, but bans merely encompass ephemeral avoidance tactics - not the firm solutions officials parade them to be.

HRW recently advised that nations 'protect women, not ban them.' Several Nepali rights groups have also criticized the policy.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East