Roshan Sedhai, Republica Daily, 17 Dec 2017
A sitting minister gets caught in camera asking for bribe from his prospective clients to do a work forbidden by the law. A senior government officer shows no shame in going to a middleman's home to collect rewards of his unlawful conduct. A victim of foreign employment is denied filing a complaint because he doesn't relent to conditions put forth by a manpower agency. A woman has to rely on a setting, an infamous nexus of cross-ministry government officials, to go to work abroad because there is no other alternative. A returnee woman gets robbed of her savings and raped at the airport by people who have taken an oath to protect people.
No government office hits media headline as frequently as the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) and its line ministry, the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE), almost always for the wrong reasons.
It was perhaps not so surprising to see why there was so little reaction when the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) on November 15 arrested Bishwo Raj Pandey, DoFE Director General, to investigate his alleged role in a corruption scandal. A day before Pandey's arrest, a team of CIAA officials had caught two of his colleagues red-handed for taking Rs 10, 00,000 from the owner of SRS overseas, a Kathmandu-based recruitment agency. In their statements, the duo had revealed that Pandey was the main person behind the bribery scheme.
SRS overseas was blacklisted after it failed to give promised jobs to 43 Nepali security guards in the UAE. The workers, who returned empty-handed after languishing in the UAE for nine months, had filed a complaint demanding compensation. Although the manpower agency in question had reimbursed the workers, the DoFE officials had refused to remove the company from blacklist without receiving kickbacks.
Pandey, who had just six days left to retire from service, had sold most of his property and was preparing to permanently migrate to Australia.
Pandey and his two colleagues are the latest in a long list of officers arrested from DoFE in corruption charge.
Corruption remains so widespread that in its 2012 report the National Vigilance Center stated that frontline officials at DoFE amass around Rs 2 million in bribe every day. The CIAA ranks it as one of the "most corrupt" government offices alongside the Land Revenue Office, Department of Transport Management, Department of Inland Revenue and Department of Customs among others.
Since 2011, more than 150 officials have been arrested in cases related to foreign employment offenses. In 2013, shortly after then Labour Minster Kumar Belbase was caught in camera demanding bribe from the owners of a prospective manpower company, the CIAA had arrested a total of 64 government officials from DoFE's frontline office and labour desk at the Tribhuvan International Airport and manpower agents on charge of corruption. DoFE director Ramesh Prasad Mainali was arrested while collecting money from an agent from the latter's residence. The anti-graft body again arrested nine more DoFE officials including director Chiranjibi Adhikari in 2014 for issuing work approval based on fake demand letter.
Reforms in the foreign employment sector have been a top priority of all successive governments since the government led by Baburam Bhattarai.
More than a dozen panels have been formed since 2012 with a view to combat corruption in the foreign employment sector. These panels had submitted various recommendations-a 10-point direction from Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, a 30-point suggestion forwarded by the Foreign Employment Improvement Committee, a 23-point direction issued by the National Vigilance Centre and a six-point recommendation of Krishnahari Pushkar-led panel- incorporating a wide range of measures against corruption.
A high-level panel formed during Bhattarai government had, for instance, suggested putting CCTV cameras at the Tribhuvan International Airport's immigration and labor desk for surveillance after Sita Rai, a returnee migrant, was robbed and raped by TIA officials. Other panels formed in the following years had recommended digitizing DoFE's works, incentive-based performance for workers and carrying out transactions through banking channel.
A panel led by Joint Secretary Krishnahari Pushkar had even recommended rotating the DoFE staffers to various sections on a daily basis to prevent corruption. The 'setting breaker', a term coined by Pushkar to describe a practice of assigning duties to staffers based on lottery draw, had been highlighted as a very effective measure to break the nexus between dishonest government officials, human smugglers, and immigration officials. Pushkar had also recommended 'One Man Set Clearance System' to abridge a long bureaucratic process to endorse a file.
But none of these efforts produced desired outcomes. Frequent transfers of DoFE staffers have often been described as a major challenge in reforming the foreign employment sector. DoFE has seen 12 chiefs in the last five years. Since the transfer of Purna Chandra Bhattarai in 2013, DoFE has seen nine director generals: Binod KC, Rabindra Mohan Bhattarai, Krishnahari Pushkar, Jagannath Devkota, Bishwo Nath Dhakal, Bharat Subedi, Kedar Bahadur Bogati, Satrudhan Pudasaini and Bishwo Nath Pandey.
Each director general had an average of five months to make the promised reforms. The rate of transfer at the lower rung is even higher. More than 2,000 transfers have occurred in the frontline office for the deputation of around 200 staff in the last five years.
Two former director generals that Republica talked with said that the frequent change in government is one of the main reasons behind frequent change of staff.
"Every time a new minister comes in, he changes the entire set of staff with people that are close to him. It's important to remember that it's beyond the power and influence of DoFE staff, even director general, to carry out things like issuing a new license or removing the blacklisted companies. These things can't happen without the involvement of ministers and secretaries," said a former DG.
Ganesh Gurung, a former member of the National Planning Commission, who led various panels formed by the government to reform the foreign employment sector, thinks lack of political will is the main reason behind failed reform efforts.
"The government and parties have never paid enough attention to the issues of migrants. I think they would start paying more attention if migrants are given voting rights," said Gurung.