This article was originally published via The Star Malaysia. Access the original version of the article here.

Migration is not just the zeitgeist of our time – it has been part and parcel of human history. People from different socioeconomic backgrounds have migrated for various reasons, from escaping persecution and wars to hoping to gain better economic security for their families back home. Today, migration between the countries of the Global South, or South-South migration (SSM), accounts for nearly half of all international migration, reaching almost 70% in some places.

Whether SSM can contribute significantly to the reduction of inequalities and the development of the sending countries has not yet been well researched and understood.

In light of this, Migration for Development and Equality (MIDEQ), a global network of research institutions based in 12 countries in the Global South, was formed to find out the answers to these questions. The key research objective is to better understand the relationships between migration, inequality and development. MIDEQ is financially supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund of the United Kingdom Research and Innovation.

Malaysia as a top destination for Nepali workers

Nepal is among the least developed countries in the world. Approximately 3.5 million Nepalis – or 14% of the total population – are working abroad due to limited employment opportunities in their home country. Malaysia is a major destination for Nepali migrant workers, and an overwhelming number of them are men.

According to the Home Ministry, as of March 2019, there were 331,724 Nepalis comprising 16.4% of the total documented migrant population in the country. They are mainly employed in manufacturing, construction, agriculture (farming, plantation, fishery, forestry) and services (F&B, retail, public safety and security) industries.

Nadiah Ahmad, Yvonne Khor Gee Weon and Sharmini Ann Nathan, based in Monash University Malaysia’s School of Arts and Social Sciences (SASS), are the researchers working to answer questions pertaining to gender inequalities, decision-making and perceptions, and the role of intermediaries in facilitating work migration.

Nadiah Ahmad is the researcher tasked with examining the gender dimensions of Nepali migrant work. Leading the Malaysian end of the Nepal-Malaysia corridor is Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, Associate Professor in Social Anthropology and Deputy Head (Research) at the same school.

Gender dimensions in Nepali migrant work

Thus far, 85 Nepali migrant workers across various sectors have been interviewed; an endeavour made more difficult with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic since early 2020.

Gaining access to these workers has been facilitated by the North-south Initiative, an NGO providing support to marginalised communities in Malaysia.

From these interviews, a number of preliminary findings on the gender dimension of Nepali migrant workers are worth noting.

Those based in specific sectors seem to be more forthcoming with their experiences than others. For instance, Nepali women migrant workers in manufacturing tended to be more guarded during their interviews. They said that they feel like they are being watched and closely monitored.

Security is a very gendered sector, it’s only male Nepali migrants. While the men note that the job itself is not challenging, seven consecutive days of 12-hour shifts become exhausting for them. “But we see that they prefer the security of having a job with consistent pay,” says Nadiah.

They earn approximately RM1,500 to RM1,600 per month. This places their families back home in a better financial situation considering that a large share of the Nepali population was close to the poverty line before the pandemic struck.

However, their jobs come at the cost of ill health and even death. Migrant workers are not legally allowed to leave their jobs and risk becoming undocumented because their work visa is tied to their employers. Moreover, there have been reports of a high incidence of sudden deaths among the community. Most of them are men.

Men are typically more willing to abscond from work than female Nepali workers when they feel exploited.

Nadiah notes that male Nepali migrants are “more publicly visible” as they work in security and food and beverage roles. In contrast, female Nepali workers are primarily concentrated in manufacturing, which is more closed off and insular.

The majority of female Nepali migrant workers interviewed are either divorced or widowed. Nepal is predominantly a patriarchal society; this is partly characterised by women often depending on their husbands or fathers to provide for them. “The absence of a male breadwinner is a major reason for why they leave Nepal,” she says.

Apart from the absence of work that fuels migration, underpinning their decision to migrate is their strong sense of family unit and their responsibility to provide for their families. “In Nepal, it's a social norm for you to be a migrant – you're expected to be a migrant, particularly in the villages outside of Kathmandu and the rural areas,” explains Nadiah.

The MIDEQ Project runs from 2019 to 2024.

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