The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect the view of the university or any organization. This blog was originally published on 15th November 2022 by the Online Khabar (English).
By coincidence, the general elections for both Nepal and Malaysia are scheduled to run one day apart from each other in late November 2022. Unsurprisingly, in both cases, local citizens and foreign observers are paying close attention not only to the competing candidates and party manifestoes but also to the likely political shifts that will happen after the elections.
How do Nepali migrant workers based in Malaysia, as well as their families back home, view this important event? Drawing from conversations with six Nepali migrant workers as well as families in Nepal (parents, wives, and teenage children), this article explores their observations and concerns.
A common concern
Photo via Julia Manzerova (Flickr) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
As shown below, a common concern among workers and elections has become a regular topic among workers with their families back home.
“Most Nepalese workers here (in Malaysia) follow closely the political situation back home as well as the elections. But I feel frustrated because I am here and can’t do much. I can only watch the elections from afar.” A male migrant worker from the Lumbini Province who has not voted for ten years.
“When I called back home and talked to my wife and family members during the local district election campaign period, they told me that politicians came to the villages and had celebrations like 🎊 (Hari Raya). Politicians slaughtered some 🐐 goats (kambing) and 🐔chickens (ayam) and distributed them to the villagers.” A male migrant worker from the Madhesh Province who is a registered voter voted once in Nepal before coming to Malaysia for foreign employment.
“The politicians ask you to call your migrant son to cast a vote. However, when your son is in trouble abroad, they do not receive his call if he calls them asking for help.” Stay behind parents in the Bagmati Province.
The neglected citizenry
Nepali migrant workers are keenly aware that they cannot afford out-of-pocket money (like airfares) as well as time to travel back to their country to cast their votes in the district, provincial and federal elections. And, unlike some other sending countries (like Indonesia and the Philippines), neither postal voting nor voter online registration is made available to Nepalis working abroad.
Thus, although Nepali migrant workers contribute significantly to the country’s economy, about 26% of the GDP through remittances, they are currently politically disenfranchised.
“The funds that the candidates spend during the elections are actually our 💰 money (duit)! But some of them think they are doing charity by giving to the people during this time!” A male migrant worker from Province No. 1 who is a registered voter but never voted.
“The politicians are just like 🎭actors, and the elections are about them playing ♟️ games and getting onto 💺 chairs (kerusi) for positions in the government.” A male migrant worker from Province No. 1, who is a registered voter, voted once in Nepal for coming to Malaysia in 2016.
Many observers have noted that labour is a highly politicized issue in Nepal, and every political party claim to have an agenda addressing employment in the country. Nevertheless, many politicians do not address the deeper roots of underemployment and underdevelopment in the country by continuing the slogan of providing “free visa and free ticket” to prospective migrant labourers.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of Nepal had ordered the Oli government to consider the possibility of upholding Nepali migrant workers’ rights to vote from abroad. Another positive development is the existence of a labour and employment portfolio in the shadow cabinet, which consistently raises concerns about migrant workers in parliament. Nevertheless, it has not been able to work towards securing the migrant’s right to vote because of the infrastructural, technical challenges, and security concerns of the e-voting system.
In Malaysia, the Election Offences Act 1954 (Section 25) states that Malaysian employers must grant their employees sufficient time to carry out their responsibility as citizens during elections. They are also not allowed to deduct their workers’ salaries or replace the time taken out during polling day with their workers’ annual leave.
It would be just if a similar interpretation applies to foreign migrant workers as the Labour Act provides that all workers in Malaysia, regardless of nationality, are equally protected.
Hope for changes at home and abroad
“Many people in Nepal are still jobless, and job opportunities are still limited. The person sitting on the 💺 chair (government position) should understand our people’s problems, create more local jobs and handle our country’s issues like flooding better. I don’t think anyone likes to be away from their families and be here in Malaysia.” A female Nepali migrant worker from Province No. 1 who is not a registered voter.
“I feel that we have this opportunity to yet again select the most eligible candidates for the benefit of our country. The candidates before the election seem to be more engaged in promoting themselves or the parties they represent. Many build castles in the air, such as bringing ships into Nepal, a landlocked country, building a monorail system in Kathmandu, and so forth. So, youths like me are quite sceptical of these promises. We hope to get the right people in through our votes.” Stay behind daughter, Madhesh Province.
“Yeah, many times I have gone to the Nepali embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Sometimes, I went there to help my friends and sometimes I came for my own work. Yes, the officers in the Nepal embassy try to help more by providing groceries and taking care of their citizens who are in bad condition. I think they cannot do much (about voting rights) because of their limited capacity. But they try.” A male migrant worker from Province No. 1.
Seeking foreign employment has become a significant livelihood choice for many families, and more and more Nepali youths are leaving for other countries. As the guardian of their citizens located around the world, it is incumbent that the Nepali government ensures there are policies and enforcement of safe migration and protection of labour rights in the destination country. It is also their obligation to work towards ensuring that the democratic voting rights of their citizens be safeguarded wherever they may be found or located.