Nepal has pursued new bilateral agreements on labour migration with vigour in recent years, concluding new agreements with stronger language on fair recruitment than in previous deals. Their new agreements, which come in the form of non- binding Memorandums of Understanding (MOU), include language on the protection of workers’ rights and have a strong focus on either eliminating recruitment fees or limiting them to those specified under Nepali law, known as the “Free Ticket, Free Visa” policy. Earlier MOUs were highly standardised and relied largely on destination state legislation. The Nepali government invested considerable time and political capital in the negotiating of these recent agreements, particularly the 2018 Malaysia MOU, which was inked against the backdrop of a ban on Nepali worker departures to Malaysia. This agreement, which includes specific provisions on the obligations of employers to bear recruitment costs - including travel expenses, insurance, medical expenses, work permit/ labour card fees and service fees - is now seen as a model for Nepal’s other agreements. The tighter restrictions it imposed on recruiters appears to have caused a backlash from the Nepali recruitment industry and appears to have contributed to the removal of a Labour Minister. The government does not share details of MOU implementation with stakeholders including unions and civil society, and as such it is difficult to assess what impact they have had, if any. The joint committees established under each agreement are opaque and meet sporadically, making it unclear what they achieve and raising concerns about whether there are effective mechanisms to drive and monitor these agreements. Nepal has been attempting to conclude a new agreement with Qatar, to replace the largely insubstantial 2005 and 2008 agreements, but Qatar’s decision to press ahead with the Qatar Visa Center in Nepal without agreeing a new bilateral framework to guide this collaboration suggests that Qatar does not place high value on these agreements, and underscores Nepal’s lack of leverage over wealthier destination states. In March 2021 Nepali media reported that the government of Qatar had initiated the recruitment of 11,000 Nepali workers to be deployed in Qatar’s police force in the run-up to Qatar 2022 World Cup, without any agreement in place with the Nepali government in place. Qatar eventually agreed to postpone recruitment after the plans caused concerns in Nepal.
Qatar has more than 40 bilateral labour agreements, which appear to follow a standardised model. Mainly negotiated in the 2000s and early 2010s, these agreements are primarily aimed at securing and broadening the country’s sources of migrant labour, and ensuring its control over immigration. The agreements include language that allows Qatar to repatriate any number of migrant workers “if their presence in the State of Qatar becomes contrary to public interest or the national security of the State”. Provisions relating to recruitment in agreements that are available rely largely on Qatari legislation and attached model contracts for workers, which have not been made public. While Qatar has in the past touted its bilateral agreements as evidence of its commitment to labour rights, it has reduced this emphasis since embarking on its technical cooperation programme with the ILO, suggesting that it has come to consider that reform of its domestic legislation and institutions is more relevant to ensuring fair recruitment and employment for workers than relying on bilateral agreements.
Recommendations to the Governments of Nepal and Qatar for all future negotiations on bilateral agreements:
- Commit to sign binding agreements that are public and commit both countries to protect workers’ fundamental human rights and labour rights throughout the duration of their recruitment, employment and return. These agreements should explicitly bind both states to enforce the ‘employer pays’ principle in relation to recruitment fees.
- Invite ILO experts, worker organisations and civil society to provide expert input into negotiations.
- Establish and implement meaningful oversight and dispute resolution mechanisms that include participation of key stakeholders including worker organisations.