Nepal’s economic focus- Employment

As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a heavy blow to the health sector of Nepal, it has impacted the employment equally or even more profoundly. It is disheartening and unfortunate, beyond what can be put into words here, to have seen workers walking on the streets without food and money, and struggling to feed their families and themselves because their jobs were lost and are now left with no source of income. A recent survey conducted by the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS) stated that 60 percent of the country’s labor force have lost their jobs since the nationwide lockdown was imposed from late March as majority of the economic activities were shut down, threatening the survival of small and informal enterprises.

Moreover, according to the Nepal Labor Survey 2017, 62.2 percent of the workforce in Nepal was engaged in the informal sector. This indicates that a heavy share of people depend on informal activities to sustain their livelihood. However, given the lack of coordination, communication and cooperation between the three tiers of the government and the issues relating to the fiscal transfers to the sub-national governments, the government’s relief packages have not reached the majority of the suffering workforce in the informal sector. The worst scenario is that considerable sections of the informal workforce languishing without a stable income have not been yet reported as the local government does not have official reliable data regarding this.

In this scenario, Nepal’s transition to a federal state which aimed at bringing services closer to people and increasing government’s effectiveness in the delivery of services is seen failing. People’s trust is slowly fading. It is expected that the shocks to employment from the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to increased unemployment rates and heighten the inequality with the most vulnerable sections disproportionately bearing the impact of the shock.

The country is, undoubtedly, in a perilous situation now with huge threats to its workforce and sustainable living. It is not to say the government has been completely shut off from this and is not doing anything in this regards, but rather that the progress that should have been realized by now is definitely slow. No doubt, a long and bumpy road lies ahead. Having said that, following suggestions, while clearly not all-encompassing, could be considered for the employment programs to be a success:

First and foremost, the numerous employment programs and frameworks that have been framed need to be implemented well. For instance, the Prime Minister’s Employment Program that was launched on 13 February 2019 with a plan to employ 60,000 youths through a minimum 100 days of wage employment has to be revisited and re-adjusted with regards to the current economic situation as most of the municipalities are not finding this program effective. While some municipalities in Jaleshwor, Bardibas, Matihani, Pipara, etc could not complete their projects and failed to generate enough days of work for the locals, some of the municipalities such as Manarasiswa Municipality and Samsi Rural Municipality never witnessed the employment projects envisioned by their local governments take off. Besides, new programs such as the Youth Employment Transformation Initiative have been launched (on 20 July 2020), with an aim to promote domestic employment and to enable poor and vulnerable youth to gain access to employment. The implementations of the new programs also have to be constantly monitored and made effective as they have a result-driven potential.

Second, innovative employment frameworks suitable to the local economy of respective municipalities have to be planned. Frameworks such as ‘Food for Work’ which has already been implemented by Sunwal Municipality in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the migrant returnees and the vulnerable sections of the community are paid in terms of food for the amount/hours of work done is an innovative method which can be encouraged and continued.

Third, a vast amount of effort has to be put in to propose new or reorient existing employment programs of the private sector by repurposing their value chains and absorbing employees, including returnee migrants and those affected by the pandemic. Currently, the economy is functioning at low capacities and is hindered by a lot of challenges. So, the primary focus has to be shifted in favor of employment of the unskilled labor as they form the major part of the working economy and can aid in increasing production. The reorientation of employment programs should also focus on retaining youth, including those who have come back from abroad.

Fourth, the government has to start with recording details of skills and experience of the returnee migrant workers by capacitating the local government. Thereafter, the government can identify such sectors of the economy that are more vulnerable and/or that employs large amount of workers. Following that, the government can either absorb those workers and re-employ them in other sectors under various unemployment programs or provide fiscal stimulus to those crisis hit sector in order for them to keep them afloat and in return retain their workers/employees.