COVID-19 Pandemic and the Need for Labour Statistics in Nepal

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COVID-19 Pandemic and the Need for Labour Statistics in Nepal

The cross-border movement of Nepali workers to and from India…forces one to think about the need and importance of labour statistics.


The COVID-19 pandemic has held the whole world in its grip. One of the most critical scenarios in Nepal is the situation of migrant workers returning to their homes, many of whom are stuck at both sides of the Nepal-India border. The situation looks more and more like a humanitarian crisis. The sudden stop in all economic activities due to the brute force of COVID-19 has forced the Nepali migrant workers to return to their motherland. Similarly, Indian migrant workers are also heading to their country from Nepal. As a result, huge crowds of people waiting to be let in have amassed at the different border points between the two countries.

Nepal, which just started its “Visit Nepal 2020” campaign on the 1st of January, has seen its tourism industry getting devastated by the pandemic.  The outbreak of the deadly pathogen has directly impacted employment in hotel and restaurants, whole industries, floriculture, retail, school-colleges, transport and more. As a result, there have been layoffs and furloughs across many sectors leaving both employees and employers in a state of disarray and uncertainty. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has already predicted that an estimated 25 million jobs could be lost around the world due to the Covid-19 crisis.

While there are several labour related issues that require the attention of the stakeholders at this critical moment, the focus of this article is on the cross-border movement of Nepali workers to and from India which forces one to think about the need and importance of labour statistics. However, this issue was already raised by Dr Harka Gurung in the 1960s and the issuance of labour permits to workers from both Nepal and India to let them work in the two countries remains an issue which has been discussed quite often.

The Nepal Labour Force Survey (NLFS) 2017-2018 reports that about 0.848 million labourers, among Nepal’s total labour force, are migrants from other countries working in Nepal. NLFS, nevertheless, does not specify from which countries the workers are from, but it does indicate that most of them are Indian migrant workers. Among those who have migrated, more than 50 percent are women, the majority of whom moved to Nepal because of marriage reasons. In 2009 a World Bank report estimated that 867,000 Nepalis were working in India. The 2011 census statistics showed that nearly two-fifths (37.2%) of absentees in Nepal are in India. However, the census data has its own limitation due to the open Nepal-India border where crossing can be short-term or seasonable and undocumented. According to the survey, out of 2.1 million people working abroad, 41 percent of workers are in India, 38 percent in gulf countries, 12 percent in Malaysia and 8.7 percent are in developed countries.

Nepalis have been going to different parts of the world to study or train and work. Firstly, the statistics of those travelling abroad, other than to India, are documented because of visas and travel procedures, but, secondly, a few still remain undocumented. For the first part, (i) Nepali students going abroad for studies are documented through no objection clearance (NOC) issued by the Ministry of Education (ii) Nepali migrant workers going to the gulf and other countries are recorded through organised sources/manpower agencies, but, in relation to the second part, (iii) Nepali students going to India to study through self-financing are not all recorded (iv) Nepali labourers going to India for work are also not documented (v) Nepalis going abroad through informal channels are not documented, and (vi) Indians coming to Nepal for work in various sectors aren’t documented.

Meanwhile, Nepali students, graduating from Indian universities and educational institutions, who are unrecorded in Nepal, might not be included in the human resource planning here. Unskilled Nepali workers in India, who are very large in number, are not documented in Nepal or in Nepal’s embassy in India. In case of problems, these workers do not have any legal grounds to report to authorised agencies but depend on their employers to receive help. So, providing social and economic security to such workers is almost impossible. The plight of workers who want to return to Nepal fleeing from the spread of coronavirus in India is one stark example in this respect. Due to the absence of credible data, the government is unable to estimate the number of people coming from the southern neighbour in order to prepare plans for their space management and quarantine.  

Indian labourers working in Nepal have also become an important part of the Nepali society. Over the years, the demand for foreign workers has multiplied as more Nepali youths fly abroad for various reasons. These workers are not registered at any government agency in Nepal and thus, they do not come under Nepal’s tax domain. Hence, maintaining labour statistics has become highly crucial. The socio-demographic details of the workers including gender, age, ethnic group, place of birth, education level, family size, land holdings in Nepal and more are some of the basic information that needs to be recorded. Also, their employment related records in India such as the time of entry into the workforce, duration of work, employer, salary and benefits, among others, should also be documented. This information will be useful in tracking the workers in case of emergency, criminal events and also for providing social security to them. The detailed records of the migrants from India also need in-depth study on what they do in Nepal. All micro and small businesses run by them should be registered.

Therefore, while considering the situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild and reconstruct socio-economic sectors, the government should start working on gathering the labour statistics of Nepal-India cross-border employment. For the documentation of labour statistics, the NLFS conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) should also include detailed information on individuals going to India for work.

 Also, the local governments should start keeping records of individuals coming to Nepal for work. While it is not easy to collect labour related statistics due to the long open border between Nepal and India, it is high time the government should plan and start working in this respect.

Hada is Professor of Management Science at Tribhuvan University.

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