We need to protect our workers from ‘wage theft’!

The coronavirus has not just been attacking the already vulnerable population with pre-existing medical conditions the most. The ambit of the virus’ damage extends far beyond health vulnerability to economic and political vulnerabilities of people. Within range of damage of the virus, there is a group that needs to be talked about which remains at the intersection of financial, political and physical vulnerability on equal respects: workers.

Economic Vulnerability as the first component in the intersection:

Let’s talk about economic vulnerability first. According to International Labor Organization, between 1.6 and 2.0 million jobs are likely to be disrupted in Nepal in the current crisis, either with complete job loss or reduced working hours and wages. As their cash flow has dried up, businesses have been laying off workers to prevent themselves from going further into debt during the pandemic. The hotel and restaurant industry has laid off the most employees after Nepal declared COVID 19 a national emergency. In addition, months-long paralysis because of the lockdown with little to no fiscal stimulus has not only slashed economic activity in the country but has also added to workers’ woes. Therefore, an absence of economic opportunity in tandem with passive government action has become a matter of life and death for many workers who have to depend upon wages to have food on their tables.

Additionally, economic reports note that vulnerable workers in Nepal have it worse. The vulnerable female workers based in Nepal who toil at homes producing goods for export have also seen their revenue shrink to a pernicious amount. The blockade of global and regional supply chains connected to Nepal due to the pandemic, has made it impossible for home-based workers to find markets for their products, putting their sources of livelihoods at risk.  Similarly, many families in rural areas who depend on remittances for their survival have felt the agony of having no money sent by their family members due to the plight of migrant Nepali workers currently stuck in foreign countries. Moreover, unscrupulous employers have used mass repatriations as an excuse to avoid paying migrant workers the wage they deserve.

Political Vulnerability in the intersection:

The pandemic unfortunately has given employers the opportunity to exploit the economic vulnerability of workers to suit their own definition of success. During any period of economic recession, employers are likely to pay less than the minimum wage or the promised wage to workers because workers essentially have fewer job options to begin with. In addition, seeing people being laid off around them with prices rising high during recessions, workers often perceive speaking against the employers’ injustices as a job suicide. Hence there are fewer complaints made against employers.  In addition, stable jobs hold high value for workers during recessions because of which workers are forced to bear the injustices inflicted upon them without question. A lack of government support to workers and an absence proper political measures exacerbates the situation for workers by helping unscrupulous employers steal from workers and walk with impunity. Therefore, workers become both politically and economically vulnerable.

A translation to physical vulnerability and its impacts:

A lack of stable financial source for low wage workers or workers already below the poverty line translates to a lack of proper sanitary equipment for fighting against health hazards such as COVID 19. Moreover, even middle-income workers who are guaranteed health insurances become physically vulnerable as employers are likely to sidestep prior agreements expecting little to no retaliation to workers. A depression can be disastrous for workers. Add a deadly pandemic to the equation and it’s a nightmare!

What could be done?

Nepal is no exception to acts of ‘wage theft’. Therefore, what can we do about this overbearing intersection of physical, economic and political vulnerabilities then? First, we can tilt the power dynamics in favor of workers by providing them with a fiscal stimulus package during this pandemic so that they do not have to be at the mercy of their employers. Secondly, since workers most vulnerable to exploitation are often the least likely to speak up — both because they tend to be less aware of their rights and because they fear retaliation — a proper inspection of workplaces without prompting is necessary to ensure the wellbeing of Nepali workers. An option to explore for inspection without draining federal resources is strengthening labor unions for effective monitoring of workplaces. Additionally, our government needs to put diplomatic pressures on other countries to ensure that Nepalese who have gone for foreign employment get paid with the amount they deserve, even during this pandemic.

Workers are the pillars of our economy. They have always been there when we needed them therefore, we as a nation have a moral duty to stand with them when they need us the most.