This weekend, one day after my return to Asia, I got to witness a meeting with our two partners, the Minister of Labour and Employment and several organisations that support workers. This kind of meeting, which we call a Trade Union Solidarity Support Organisation (TUSSO) meeting is to share regarding the work the trade unions do and which support they are receiving for what.

The title for this post, taken from one of the facilitators, refers to the challenges in many countries, and particularly in South Asia, to have workers movements that are both independent and not fragmented, with hundreds of trade unions. Sometimes, trade unions are founded by political parties, as a wing to attract and represent workers, which often leads to them to have easier political access and an initial membership base, but this however can put into question their independence, especially when that party comes into power. And this also means that political divides and tensions can tamper with workers solidarity, where their interests and defense should prevail.

Nepal is a very interesting country to that extent and thankfully in a good way. The three main trade unions of Nepal, NTUC, GEFONT and ANTUF, which historically had/have links with respectively the Congress party, the UML and the Maoist party, have managed to cross those political divides and power struggles and collaborate quite closely. Some can even claim that their working together avoided greater clashes and prolonged civil war between the political fractions. The three trade unions have created two platforms, the ITUC-National Affiliated Centers (through which WSM supports capacity strengthening and advocacy on Occupational Health and Safety) and Joint Trade Union Coordination Center (JTUCC), which is the political instrument of the three trade unions.

Minister of Labour, Representatives from trade unions, WSM partners GEFONT and NTUC, ANTUF, SAARTUC and employers organisation

With the support from WSM, SASK and LO-FTF, two other TUSSOs from Finland and Denmark, the three trade unions collectively organized a meeting to share information on their programmes, their priorities during this period of transition, how they work to include workers right in the constitution drafting process etc. It might not seem very impressive, but to see them smoothly agree on things as who to invite, who will speak when, these are all the fruit of long trust building processes. And this joint working also allowed them to involve media and high level participants, like the Minister of Labour himself. In total, there were 49 participants (10 women), several international,  took part.

To illustrate, I picked some of the things that were said, in my own personal preference:

  • Minister of Labour: “Though the relations in the past were complicated, now the government plays a role of facilitator and we are committed to the international labour standards and that they be transposed into national legislation. If not, our youth will continue to look abroad. We’ll surely take into strong consideration the recommendations from this meeting and from the trade unions.
  • Representative from the employers organisation: “Though there is a good dialogue between the social partners in Nepal, for instance in drafting the new Labour law and Social Security act, our international image has been tarnished, which hampers foreign investment. I call on all Trade Unions to please help correct this.
  • SAARTUC representative: “For us, labour law is the expression and commitment from both employers and employees and the state is there to facilitate and ensure respect.”

From different trade union representatives across the three trade unions:

  • The Nepali workforce consists of 12,5 million people, of which an estimated 8 million work abroad (3,5 million in the Gulf states and Malaysia, around 4 million in India). In total, only 12% of the workers are unionized.
  • We traded flexibility, a demand from the employers, with social security, a demand from the workers.
  • Social protection is the only way to ensure strong workers movements.
  • During 17 years, no labour issues were discussed in Parliament, so workers went to the streets with their demands. In the New Constitution, we proposed and it is drafted that 10% of members of Parliament should come from the workers.
  • Though we still need technical support and know how on the financing of the social security schemes, we’ve organized the social security fund with 1% contribution from the workers (which has already collected over 6 billion rupees), and 10+1% from the employers.
  • During our social dialogue regarding legislation drafting, in the beginning, there were 81 points of discord. Then we went down to 30 and now there are less than 12.
  • Nowadays, it is more important to ensure actual implementation of legislation than draft and create more workers rights that only exist on paper.
  • We, trade unions and TUSSOs, should create a centralized training center, where we stock material on Collective Bargaining Agreements, occupational health and safety, modules on organizing, research and publications, so we can all share and benefit from these. 
  • Nepal has no labour inspectors. There are only ten health inspectors who only look at health and safety aspects, while labour inspectors should have a far broader mandate. 
  • It is difficult to unionize workers. We have IT engineers, who make 4.000Rps (30€) per month, which is half the minimum wage, but they still are reluctant to become members of trade unions.
  • We don’t want your financial support but moral and expertise, we want to stand on our own feet.

Short video of the previous TUSSO meeting in Kathmandu, in 2010:

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