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Covid-19 crisis and its impact on Nepali workers

People leave Kathmandu for their home during the lockdown, in April 2020.

The spread of coronavirus is expanding gradually and increasing negative impact on socio-economic orders across the world. Recent news reports paint a poignant picture of the daily life of the poor people, particularly the daily wage workers employed in the informal sectors with the most unstable employment relationships.

Almost 2.8 billion people, one-third of the world population, are currently, under lockdown imposed to slow down the pace of the coronavirus spread. Though the lockdown may have been useful to control the outbreak, the future does not look good for the poor.

Situation in Nepal

This year, the May Day saw dreadful silence on the streets in Kathmandu and elsewhere, where leaders of the labour unions affiliated with different political parties used to address huge masses of the fellow workers celebrating their annual festival. From the very beginning of the lockdown, the working class began to experience hardships as the source of their daily income closed down suddenly. The workers in an ever-increasing number continue to lose their jobs and/or experience a decline in their earning as a result of the crisis.

During the nationwide lockdown, when the solidarity from their leaders was a pressing necessity more than ever when factories and enterprises were closed and the workers had lost their work, they have been detached from their leaders.

Amid the delayed action of some of the ministers, the pro-activeness of the local officials (mayors and ward chairs) had someone resuscitated the class-consciousness, and hence the faded hope among the workers. However, this moment of hope did not last long as the home minister again ordered the CDOs to strictly implement and monitor the lockdown orders. And, again, working-class people were restricted.

People leave Kathmandu for Sunsari during a night in the lockdown period, in Kathmandu, in April 2020.

With these bitter realities, millions of the workers on the May Day this year contemplated on this uncertainty, calling upon the government to provide information about when the lockdown would end so that they can be certain whether to choose risky options like crossing the Mahakaali River to get back home.

Unequal world: unequal effects

During the lockdown, though we are locked inside the houses, it is discernible through the windows that the manifestation of the plight of the proletariats is painting not an eye-pleasing picture, but a heart-rending one. There are two pictures in the scene: one that of the poor who are walking along the highways no matter whether they are hungry, pregnant, old or sick and the other of the affluent and powerful, who are being repatriated to their houses on chartered aeroplanes, ambulances and government vehicles with ‘lockdown passes’.

Representational image

Health and economic effects of the crisis are disproportionate to the poor. For example, homeless people are more exposed to virus infection because they do not have a home. So is the case with informal settlers because they do not have adequate water to wash hands and enough space to maintain standard social distancing. So are migrant returnees, the landless or displaced persons.

Not only the constitution of 2015 but also the sustainable development goals (SDGs) set up by the United Nations have now received a strong blow by this global pandemic. It has affected all segments of society, but the effects are disproportionate and more detrimental to the people in vulnerable situations such as poverty.

Achieving the SDGs, fulfilling the commitment of leaving no one behind, seems a difficult journey now with the unprecedented challenges.

Policy challenges

According to the National Labour Force Survey (2018/2019), there are 29 million people in Nepal, out of which, 20.7 million people are of working age. They are in a better position to help the most vulnerable, help in spreading awareness about public health through social awareness campaigns and thus they are critical to curbing the spread of the virus and its possible impact on the family, society and economy at large. But, around 62.2 per cent of them are employed in informal sectors and are already experiencing income shocks that jeopardise the prospectus of their pro-active role in reducing the spread of the virus. They are not covered by any social security provision as formal sector jobs are very difficult to find.

According to the Ministry of Finance estimates, 500,000 people enter the Nepali labour market annually. Hitherto development plans and strategies of the government are focused on creating productive employment in service sectors including industry, trade, tourism, education and health to utilise the youth labour force. The plans have now greatly challenged by the virus.

Efforts of transferring unproductive surplus labour force and capital from agriculture sector to other sector have remained a daunting challenge as the agriculture is seen as the only sector to absorb the labour force in this difficult time. Therefore, the debate is on how the country can best utilise its labour force in agriculture.

Employment issues

The fairly growing Nepali economy is now staggering through the series of barriers created by the pandemic.

The Employment Service Centre (ESC) has been established as per the Right to Employment Act, 2018, in each local level to balance the demand and supply of the labour force and provide at least 100 days’ employment during a fiscal year. It can be instrumental to identify the unemployed people, who will be more than ever in the aftermath of the pandemic, and facilitate alternative policy solutions.

Around 4.3 million Nepali people are currently abroad for work. Very soon, a majority of them are returning to Nepal. Many of them are already in a dire situation and appealing to the government to repatriate them. As per Contribution-based Social Security Act, 2017, the Social Security Fund has received Rs 20 billion to be used for the welfare of the workers. However, the government is not designing any alternative plan to manage the prospective returnees and existing labour force within the country.

Representational file image

Various employment programmes launched by the government to ensure the right to employment and the right to labour, National Employment Policy 2016, and Foreign Employment Policy 2012  must be reviewed. The scale of the concessional credit up to Rs 200,000 from banks and financial institution or cooperatives without collateral should be increased up to Rs 500,000 to promote self-employment and entrepreneurship.

International cooperation

As indicated by the ILO, to solve the current crisis, large-scale, integrated policy measures are needed, with a special focus on supporting enterprises, stimulating economy and jobs, protecting workers in the workplace, and using social dialogue between government, workers and employers to find solutions. This is where international cooperation is required to overcome the socio-economic losses incurred by the already vulnerable, least developed countries across the world.

If not addressed properly and quickly across the globe through policy measures, the humanitarian crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic may also increase inequality, exclusion, discrimination and global unemployment in the medium and long run further resulting in a heavy toll on the prospect to achieve the SDGs.

Conclusion

When you face uncertainties, you need trusted information and clear directions. The government must review its decision to refuse the return of the people locked down abroad and elsewhere to their home if the health protocols applicable in times of a pandemic are fully respected. This will help lighten their distress due to the discriminatory behaviour of the state. The fund collected from the diaspora can be used to facilitate the process.

The trust upon the communist-led government is already lower due to its ferocious reactions as response measures in the early stage of the pandemic. But still, there is an opportunity for the most sublime effort to support the working class people through the attractive immediate relief package and longer-term job guarantee or basic income security that may improve people’s capacity to manage and overcome the shock. Therefore, governments and societies need to show solidarity to all the working-class people.

Joshi is a national facilitator at National Engagement Strategy-Nepal.

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Joshi is a national facilitator at National Engagement Strategy-Nepal.

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