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History of Overseas Employment

Nepal has a long history of foreign employment in India, dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, when men from the hill areas of what was then known as Gorkha migrated westwards to the city of Lahore in the northern region of Punjab. There they joined up as soldiers in the army of the Sikh Rajah, Ranjit Singh. Even today, those working abroad are popularly known as "lahures."

One of Nepal's major exports is labor, and most rural households now depend on at least one member's earnings from employment away from home and often from abroad.

In the last decade, foreign labor migration has become a major feature of Nepal's economy and society. Approximately 700,000 Nepalis work "overseas," meaning beyond India, mainly in the Middle East, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. About five percent of these are women. At least another 700,000 work in the private sector in India, and 250,000 in India's public sector.

During World War I, Nepal provided hundreds of thousands of men to fight for Britain and the Allies, suffering significant casualties and losses. As a result, many Nepalis decided to settle in India, where the economy was rapidly growing and employment opportunities were increasing. By contrast, Nepal's autocratic Rana dynasty was presiding over a "semi-feudal" and predominantly subsistence-based agrarian economy.

Foreign Labor Migration as Private Enterprise

With the approval of the Labor Act of 1985, the government of Nepal officially recognized the potential value of foreign labor migration "overseas," meaning beyond the Indian subcontinent. The government has done little since then to develop a coherent labor export policy or to provide any kind of training or support packages. The trade unions in Nepal are finally beginning to show an interest in overseas workers.

Foreign labor migration from Nepal is still largely a privately organized affair in which individuals make use of their own personal networks or make arrangements through a number of private, government-registered manpower or recruitment agencies. From the late 1980s onwards, Nepalis began to migrate in significant numbers eastwards to Southeast Asia and the Far East and, from the mid-1990s onwards, westwards to the Gulf countries..

According to research in 2002 by the Nepal Institute for Development Studies for the women's fund at the United Nations (UNIFEM), approximately 170,000 or more Nepalis were in East and Southeast Asia, with nearly 36,000 in Europe and over 10,000 in North America. However, the Gulf countries by this time had eclipsed Asian destinations; over 465,000 Nepalis were working in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The majority of women migrant workers beyond India were in two countries Hong Kong (44 percent) and Japan (9 percent) with 56.5 percent in East and Southeast Asia. The remainder was in the UK (12 percent), the US (9 percent), Australia (6 percent), Bahrain (4 percent), and other countries. Most of them were working as domestics or in other areas of the service sector.

Nepalis in the Gulf Countries

Increasingly, during the latter part of the 1990s, Nepalis began to migrate to the Gulf countries for work, particularly to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Qatar. Within a short period, the number of manpower agencies operating in Kathmandu to recruit and send Nepalis to the Middle East had soared, as had the number of Nepalis migrating. The government's only contribution to this massive movement to the Gulf was to establish a consulate in Qatar to supplement the existing embassy in Saudi Arabia.

By August 2001, 87 percent of officially registered migrant workers (those recruited by recognized manpower agencies) were headed for the Gulf. An analysis of Nepali migrant workers in 2002 by the Nepal Institute for Development Studies for UNIFEM, the women's fund at the United Nations revealed that two-thirds of Nepalis working overseas were employed in the Gulf, mainly in Saudi Arabia (42 percent), Qatar (11.5 percent), and the UAE (nine percent). The total was estimated at 465,000 10 times more than in 1997.