Disaster as a Catalyst for Injustice: Experiences of Nepali Migrant Workers during Covid-19
Disasters are known to unveil and exacerbate various forms of injustices facing historically disadvantaged communities. The present paper uses the lens of Covid-19 as a catalyst for injustice, to explore and document the characteristics of injustices facing Nepali labour migrants in the wake of the Covid-19 disaster. Nepali migrants are historically exposed to several forms of vulnerabilities that range from duping by loan sharks and unscrupulous recruitment agencies to severe forms of human slavery. With the onset of Covid-19, Nepali migrants are not just exposed to health risks but also faced with uncertainties of employment, made worse by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ Covid-19 restrictions. While the moneylender’s interest rate kept surmounting, lack of jobs, salary cuts, and mobility restrictions posed a further threat to their lives, livelihoods, and societal relations. The paper draws on the interview data, involving returnee migrant workers and activists, and participant observation of local community town hall meetings organised by rights activists, to understand the nature of injustices faced by labour migrants in both destination countries and Nepal during Covid-19. The paper shows that the nature of injustices spans the migrant workers’ experiences of cascading forms of deprivation and loss in the destination country, together with government neglect in Nepal, among others. Bringing disaster literature in dialogue with migration scholarship, we draw attention to how Covid-19 acted as a mix of injustice-unveiling and injustice-entrenching conditions, exposing the irresponsibility of the Nepali state on the one hand, and the limits of the international support system on the other, to protect and promote the well-being of labour migrants. While Covid-19 has entrenched the scale and scope of injustices, we use the notion of catalyst to also highlight the possibilities for political claim-making on the State, foregrounded in the values of protection, justice, and accountability. We further discuss these possibilities in terms of the role of transnational solidarity networks in both preventing and confronting the scope and scale of injustices experienced by marginalised communities in the era of frequent disasters.
Keywords: disasters, Covid-19, labour migration, Nepal, injustice