First of all, historically. The last time they organized a joint, wider workers’ conference was in September 2005, in the midst of violent conflicts and imposed unconstitutional regime. Political parties were banned and meetings were under strict regulations. The then Royal Regime banned the Civil Servants’ Organization and created a fictitious “Union” to represent Nepali workers in International Labour Conference; however, because of the pungent protest of Unions, this failed. . Thousands of Trade Unionists jointly demonstrated in Kathmandu marking the May Day. This was the first ever demonstration after the Royal take-over on February 1st. Despite this and the immense political and ideological divides that opposed trade unions and the parties they were often linked to, they took the initiative to gather over 2.000 workers and draft a declaration that firmly called for full-fledged democracy and uninterrupted rights. Many changes took place since and are still happening now, so, almost a decade later, this second Wider National Workers Conference aimed at institutionalizing the achievements.
Secondly, the current transitional phase. Nepal is going through a lot of changes. Many big things are in the pipeline and the trade unions have played a major role in several of them. A new Constitution is being drafted by the Constitutional Assembly and our partners are involved in chapter on the labour rights to be included. A new Labour Act on which they have been working for twelve years now is currently with the government and supported by the Minister of Labour. A Social Security Fund is being set up, which would also include the workers of the informal economy. A big event like this puts pressure and shows the mobilization force of the trade unions. As the ILO representative for Nepal, Director Jose Aasalino said in his speech: “We are amazed by the capacity of Trade Unions to collaborate and to influence and lobby towards the government. You are writing the history of Nepal, a country which is on the right track to become an example for others to follow.” The Declaration Letter drafted during the conference (here in Nepali and here in English) requests the state to promulgate Federal, Republic, Democratic, Worker friendly and Pro Socialist Constitution on time and end the political transition and forge cooperation among the political parties to transform the society economically; the letter also demands the state to establish National Labour Commission to enact Social Security Fund Act and propose the agreed bill of National Labour Law in Parliament. It further demands the state to initiate steps to promote decent work by creating job opportunities in the country and manage the existing work sectors. The conference also highlighted the importance of forming a Trade Union Council of South Asian Trade Unions which would run campaigns in the regions on the agendas of national minimum wage, social security, problems faced by migrant workers and Gender Equality.
Thirdly, the democratic process. The three trade unions together represent over 90% of all unionized workers. Though it is very hard to predict which of the proposals will see the light of day in the near future, now is the time to share these proposals and have them commented and validated by the members. In the first day of the conference the participants discussed in groups on the Agendas of Labor Law Bill, Social Security Fund Act and Safe Foreign Employment (4 to 5 million Nepali work abroad). Over 2.000 suggestions to the Presidents of the three National Centers were gathered and compiled. And should the Acts come to pass, the battle will be only half won, because, as Mr. Laxman Basnet, General Secretary of SARTUC said: “This Labour Act is meaningless if it is not implemented in our life. I believe this conference will be useful to formulate and share these policies.”
Fourthly, because of the people present. 400 union leaders from each trade union were invited, out of which at least 50% had to be from outside of Kathmandu, to ensure grassroots level participation. Two members of the workers representatives in the Constitutional Assembly also took part. The Deputy President of the ITUC and President of LO Sweden, Mr. Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, opened the ceremony, saying that “international solidarity is now more important than ever, because of the globalized world. Workers everywhere are affected and companies try to take advantage and play workers against each other.” The Director of Human & Trade Union Rights of ITUC, Mr Stephen Benedict, stressed that “outsiders have nothing to teach trade unions here, since they know best the needs of the workers and the realities, but we share and look forward to hearing about your achievements.” The Presidents of the trade unions alternated chairing and presiding the different sessions. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Mr. Tek Bahadur Gurung, spoke after Ms. Binda Pandey from the ILO Governing Body, to end the conference and listen to the declaration and suggestions.
In short, though these meetings may look boring at first glimpse, when you think it is part of a process that determines workers’ rights in the constitution, a labour law act 12 years in the making, building social security (the first schemes of social security were only introduced in Nepal in 1991), I find it fascinating. Of course, being realistic, I also know not all of these proposals will follow through, and correct implementation is as big a challenge as getting legislation through, but still, I couldn’t help but be impressed and hopeful.