VOL. 05, NO. 20, May 04, 2012 (Baishakh 22, 2069)
Labor: Up In Arms
Nepal’s labor movement started along with the political movement and it is yet to change its political alliance. Instead of carrying their own agenda for negotiations, Nepal’s labor unions are turning more into a militancy mode
By KESHAB POUDEL
In the last week of March, CPN-UML affiliated Nepal’s Civil Service Employees Association locked up the door of Ministry of General Administration for a couple of days over the transfer issue. Similarly, Secretary at the Ministry of Education Kishore Thapa walked out of the room when members of Civil Employees Association threatened to physically assault him.
Just a week back, members of Maoist affiliated Civil Service Employees Association threatened the director general of Customs Department to face serious consequences if he did not leave the office.
This trend is not only a feature of government offices now. Private sector industries, including the hotels, have also been facing hard times in a similar manner. Construction workers have launched a strike, paralyzing many development projects. Be it in the government or the private sector, Nepal’s Trade Unions are turning into groups of violent people, who can physically threaten managers, owners and other senior employees, who do not bow down before them.
As Nepal celebrated 123rd May Day by organizing various programs and calling for harmonization of relations, the reality is different and the environment is very hostile. Instead of going for negotiations, trade union leaders start their agitation by locking the industries.
Due to the growing militancy in trade unions, more than a half a dozen industries have already shut down in the last one year and many industries are under a constant threat of physical assault by trade union workers.
Although several efforts have been made in the past to improve the relations between industrialists and labor, major progress seems elusive as ever. As growing tensions are more of norm in industries and business, the need to maintain harmonious relations between trade union workers and industrialists and managers has become more urgent.
“Despite suffering from intense and long political instability, high interest rate, and increasing energy crisis, Nepali industries have been running smoothly, with sporadic incidents. This is possible because of the important role played by labors,” said Binod Chaudhari, industrialist and president of Confederation of Nepalese Industries. In his message to May Day, Chaudhari said in the recent past Nepal’s labor relations were heading towards harmonization.
“CNI and its affiliated industries want to see Nepal’s labor relations more industry-friendly. For this, support and help of laborers affiliated to various Trade Union organizations are inevitable. Labor and industrialists need to join together to make progress,” said Chaudhary.
In the last one decade, labor relations have changed much, but they are not free of problems. “Despite improvement in the overall relations, there are still a lot of things to do in this area,” said Suraj Vaidya president of Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries.
The situation in labor sector is still volatile. A recent example is the labor dispute in Surya Nepal, where the government intervened. It asked the management and trade unions of Surya Nepal, a multinational company, to resolve the tension through dialogues.
At a time when the market for foreign investment is competitive, countries like Nepal need to prove that their domestic environment is friendly to investors and climate is conducive. However, the situation is yet to improve in Nepal’s case for the desired outcome.
The long-running labor dispute at Surya Nepal - the largest tobacco manufacturer in the country - has come to an end after the management addressed the demands placed by the workers.
Rabi KC, corporate vice-president of Surya Nepal, said the company lost around 60 percent of daily production during the protest period.
At a time when industrialists are complaining about the rise of trade unions, the number of trade unions in Nepal has increased drastically. A total of 86 new trade unions were added in the last six years, that is, after People's Movement II. As of now, there are 286 trade unions registered at the Department of Labor (DoL), up from 200 in fiscal 2005-06.
In the first half of the current fiscal year, six new trade unions were registered at the department. They are the Press Workers Association (PWA), National Democratic Handicraft Workers Association (NDHWA), Rastra Sewak Karmachari Sangathan and Sarkari Asthahi Karar Jyaladari Workers Association.
Out of the total 286 registered trade unions, 135 were affiliated to 10 trade union federations while the rest were working independently. Most of these trade union federations are affiliated with the major political parties.
According to the DoL, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist)'s General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) is the largest trade union federation in the country with 29 trade union associations under its affiliation. Similarly, the Maoists' All Nepal Trade Union Federation (ANTUF) has 14 and the Nepali Congress' Nepal Trade Union Congress (NTUC) has 10 trade union associations under their affiliation.
Pashupati Murarka, chairman of the Employers' Council at the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), said that with the growing number of trade union associations and federations, the industrial sector has become the victim as these unions are mainly busy in their own ego tussles.
"The recent labour unrest took a long time be resolved due to the different voices from different trade unions," said Murarka. He added there were many factions within a trade union federation.
On April 28, General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) extended its best wishes to all the workers in both national and international workplaces for a healthy, respected and secure life on the occasion of International Commemoration Day.
“Our major agenda is to strengthen the health safety and minimize the accidents to the zero level because health is one of the important labour rights,” it said.
Ignoring the guarantee of health, rights, decent work and respected life of workers, government and employers are only concentrating on productivity. “We appeal to the government and employers to provide a guarantee to a healthy, respected and secure life of the workers for high productivity.”
Extending condolences to all the workers of the world who lost their lives because of industrial accidents and occupational diseases, it referred especially to the Nepalese workers, who lost their lives in the foreign lands in difficult circumstances.
“Many of those have returned in the coffins, many of them are buried in the foreign land; we pay our commiseration to all of them. And to those who are injured and sick, we wish them to get well soon. To achieve our goal, firstly we have to have the safe and healthy working place. Thus, we wish all the best for our work to achieve our goal with unity and commitment.”
Trade union leaders see the situation differently. They held the view that the problems in the industries are related to the problems generated by management. “Labor relations have much improved now and laborers are disciplined and organized compared to past few years,” said Bishnu Rimal, president of GEFONT.
There will be no stability in the absence of peace and constitution. "Labour agenda is yet to be heard by all top brasses of political parties," President Rimal opined.
"The issue of representation, as of other segments of society, is among major demands. The provision of national labour commission as constitutional body is other important issue. It will be just insufficient if we could able to include only right to organization and collectively bargain as the fundamental rights in new constitution.”
“Transparency Key To Solving Labour Issues,” Som Lal Subedi
Secretary of Ministry of Labor and Transport Management Som Lal Subedi is one of the young and dynamic secretaries in the government service of Nepal. Subedi, who spent his long career in the Ministry of Local Development, is also known for taking quick decisions. In the context of May Day or the World Labor Day, Subedi spoke to New Spotlight on various issues.
How do you describe the present state of labor disputes?
There are two sides to labor disputes, legal issues and practices in case of non-compliance. Ambition is another aspect. There are high expectations and low achievements. On the question of benefits and benefit sharing, disputes come up. Most of the disputes appear due to lack of transparency and accountability. There are various reasons behind the labor disputes in the country. There is a multiplicity of dimensions.
How do you see them in Nepal’s context?
In the context of Nepal, they are related to transparency. There is the need to have transparency at all levels, including the management as well as the labor level. If there are transparent ways of sharing the benefits, I don’t think major labor unrest will appear. Misunderstanding between labor unions and industrialists are another reason for labor unrest in Nepal. Of course, in some cases, trade unions are carrying political agenda with focus on the question of rights of the workers, ignoring the responsibilities. Similarly, entrepreneurs also make the mistakes by trying to undermine the genuine demands of workers.
Industrialists have been talking about the need to amend the present labor act. How do you look at it?
We have very good acts and policies. So far as their implementation is concerned, we can see many lapses. We formulate the laws in haste and realize during the process of implementation that it is difficult to realize them. Sometimes, the acts are promulgated by inadequate legislation processes. This is the reason amendments become necessary. Labor act is no exception.
It is said that foreign investors are wary of investing in Nepal because of labor unrest. How do you look at this aspect?
One can interpret it in both ways. There exists labor unrest. If seen from the other side, it does not exist at all. If there are other infrastructure, this is only one part. The labor issue is unnecessarily over raised. This is not only one part of the process of industrialization. If there is basic infrastructure like electricity and market, no laborer will prefer unrest. If laborers get a tangible individual benefit from a particular factory, there is a rare possibility of labor unrest. I don’t agree that labor is only reason behind the declining foreign investment options. Good governance, transparency, accountability and infrastructure, power generation and access to market are also equally important. Besides that there must be right persons in the right places. Labor unrest can be minimized by making the system accountable and transparent. I am not saying that there is no labor unrest but what I am saying is it is one of the elements to discourage the foreign investors.
What is your opinion about what needs to be done?
Our country has no strong social security. This is the reason nobody wants to lead the agitation or unrest that can make them unemployed. Nepal does not have a long history of the industrialization. Most of the workers available in labor market are unskilled and illiterate. They don’t know their rights and responsibilities. Discrimination in salary and facility also provokes the workers to go for strike. Our experiences have shown that most of the labor disputes are related to right demand/ issues in the enterprise.
What are lacking?
There is no platform (tripartite) in district level as well as in central level for social dialogue in order to make harmonic industrial relations. There is no separate act for occupational safety and health. Some provisions of occupational safety and health are included in existing labor act which are not sufficient to improve the working environment. Workers give more focus on monetary benefits and management takes investment in improving working conditions as blocking of capital. Due to poor working conditions, occupational accidents occur and increase. If we have a good system, we can minimize the existing labor problems.
How do you look at the frequent incidents of lock up and physical mishandling of management by workers. How do you look at this?
There is a system to take steps. However, this kind of scenario appears because of the tendency of jumping. I have to admit that there is a weak labor enforcement and inspection mechanism. There are only 10 labor officers through the country. Human resources as well physical facilities are inadequate. Labor offices are mostly engaged in trade union registration work and they don’t have time to inspect he offices. There are district administrative offices and labor offices. The government’s role is just to facilitate. The role of facilitator is a very difficult work.
There is the need to take rights and duties together. We talk much about rights but not about duties. We have two things, vested interests and political interests, that are hindering smooth work.