Labour migration: results, impact, and barriers

Migrants in Delhi have found social and economic niches, but they became even more marginalised within these niches. The main objective of the project was to build on migrants’ capacities and improve the conditions under which they live.

Results and products

Community outreach programs in host countries can reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers. Delhi is a major destination in India, with about 200,000 Nepalese living there. The target group are migrants coming from the far-western Development Region of Nepal.

As outlined in the introduction of this course, we differentiate conceptually between three different knowledge forms: system, target, and transformation knowledge. Summarising the results of the collaboration, I will differentiate between those three different forms of knowledge.

  • System knowledge based on my own empirical research: Migrants in Delhi have found social and economic niches, but they become even more marginalised within these niches. They do not learn new skills, remain in the same sector for generations, and often incur even greater debt as a result of poorly run financial self-help groups, gambling, and drinking, instead of sending remittances home. At the same time, there are men, as well as some women, who run successful financial self-help groups and invest in development in their home villages (if you are interested in learning more about this topic, see footnotes1 and 2). Because of the open border agreement between India and Nepal, there is only scanty knowledge about the numbers of Nepalese in Delhi and where they live. The South Asia Study Center (SASC) collects data about migrants to provide more accurate statistics about Nepalese migrants in Delhi.
  • Target knowledge built on exchange with collaborators. We jointly identified issues that would improve the situation of the migrants significantly. Hence the main objective of the project was to build on migrants’ capacities and improve the conditions under which they live. Specifically, we decided to focus on the organisation of the migrant workers in Delhi and on enhancing economic literacy.
  • Transformation knowledge and how system and target knowledge turn into practice is described in the sections below.

Information and education

Nepalese migrants live throughout the city of Delhi. They have tight and variable time schedules and return to Nepal temporarily. Providing information about migrants requires creativity, is time-consuming and labour intensive. SASC offered a combination of regular courses for migrants and cultural events like street theatre, which is used to disseminate information about such topics as:

  • Delhi as a place of residence, including the addresses of the Royal Nepalese Embassy, police stations, existing migrant associations, and public health and transport facilities;
  • Labour rights;
  • Health issues such as alcohol abuse and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS;
  • Economic literacy, including management of salaries and debts, safe operation of financial self-help groups, and the problem of gambling;
  • Safe remittance transfer from India to Nepal;
  • Investment of remittances in Nepal.

Cultural events included concerted actions with other Delhi-based NGOs. For example, at the International Migrants Day, the film ‘Woman by Woman’ was screened, with about 50 migrant women on hand. The Oscar-nominated US-based filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman led a discussion about the movie. Another event was a street play about migration and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS on the International AIDS Day. At cultural events migrants also get in touch with people outside their daily circle of interaction and they can share their concerns with others. All events are followed up by regular visits to migrants.

Lobbying and networking

At roundtable meetings, SASC brought Indian and Nepalese policy representatives, trade unions, and NGOs together to address migration issues at the policy level. In coordination with Nepalese immigrant associations, SASC also raises critical issues such as harassment of migrants at work in the Royal Nepalese Embassy and police stations in Delhi. SASC was involved in negotiations for better banking facilities for Nepalese living in Delhi. One sign of success is a joint venture between the Nepal based Everest Bank and the Punjab National Bank in India that began in 2004. Migrants can now open a bank account with their Nepalese identification card and remit money to Nepal.

As a result of a regular provision of information to migrants and public awareness of their needs, male migrants have been motivated to form their own registered organisation of watchmen. They want to enhance their public negotiating power and gain confidence in handling their daily problems with employers and the police. SASC was assisting them in this endeavour. The watchmen finally established their organisation in 2005. They have been very active and reached several hundreds of migrants, negotiated with employers and trade unions, organised demonstrations and social events.

We also wrote an academic paper about our collaboration experience. Since I was in an academic environment and ‘output’ is especially measured as publications, I took the lead for one joint paper. At the same time the writing process also allows collaboration partners to reflect on their experience (see footnote3). Since the issue of safe migration remains a political issue until today, colleagues and I continued contributing to policy debates (see footnote4).

What do you think about this development? What could happen next?

Author: Prof. Dr. Susan Thieme

Further reading

Janker, Judith & Thieme, Susan (2021). Migration and justice in the era of sustainable development goals: a conceptual framework. Sustainability science, 16(5), pp. 1423-1437. Open access here.

  1. Thieme, S. (2006): Social Networks and Migration. Kultur, Gesellschaft, Umwelt/Culture, Society, Environment, 7. Münster, DE: LIT Verlag. 

  2. Thieme, S. (2007): Social Networks and Migration: Far West Nepalese Labour Migrants in Delhi. NCCR North-South Dialogue, 15. Bern, CH: NCCR North-South. (Summary of the above book reference, available as download.) 

  3. Thieme, S., Bhattrai, R., Gurung, G., Kollmair, M., Manandhar, S. & Müller-Böker, U. (2005): Addressing Nepalese Migrant Workers’ Needs. Mountain Research and Development, 25(2),109-114. Open access here

  4. Thieme, S., Ghimire, A. & Gurung, G. (2014): Making Migration Safer. Research Evidence for Policy. Bern, CH: NCCR North-South. Open access here