The country has reached to the doorstep of political stability now. With this, the struggle of trade unions and the achievements they made have elevated to a new phase. If we look at our glorious past, we can treasure many achievements to celebrate, and a lot of learning to embrace. The achievements and learning provide us a solid foundation based on which we can develop future programmes of trade union movement.
1. New labour law and union’s viewpoint: With the political change in 1990, GEFONT demanded replacement of the existing labour legislation by a new legislation to address the labour issues. As a result, the Factory and Factory Workers Act 1959 was repealed and Labour Act 1992 and Trade Union Act 1992 were promulgated. Based on this legislative foundation, the trade union movement received a legal recognition in 1993.
In 2017, the parliament revoked the Labour Act 1992 and promulgated a new Labour Act that legally recognised the informal sector as formal sector. The trade union movement also achieved the Contributory Social Security Act 2017 which guaranteed that the employers, regardless of the number of workers employed and terms and conditions, should provide minimum remuneration and benefits to the workers as prescribed in the law. A system of Labour inspection and occupational safety and health inspection is coming into operation soon for the first time. This is the new achievement for us not only in Nepal but also in South Asia .
2. Bonded labour freedom movement: GEFONT started working from 1995 on the issue of Kamaiya system, the bonded labour practice in western Nepal. It launched a campaign for over a decade calling for an end to exploitative bonded and forced labour practices. The campaign succeeded to achieve Bonded Labour (Prohibition) Act in 2001 with declaration of freedom to the Kamaiya workers and their rehabilitation.
3. Beyond borders campaign: South Korea was the major destination for foreign employment in 1993. Number of workers paying high price for foreign employment, were facing numerous problems in the country of destination and sustaining sever injuries. Those who could save money out of their hard labour had no legal channel to send it to their homeland. Words like remittance were not common then.
GEFONT stepped in to take up this issue and demanded the government to set up a mechanism to send workers abroad only through government channel. It also asked the government to take strong action against manpower companies operating illegally; put in place a non-discriminatory system to support the migrant workers as natives in the country of destination, and to facilitate them to bring their savings to home through financial/banking channel. These demands were taken as ‘irrelevant’ during those days. But within a decade of the campaign we launched, the government of both the countries (Nepal and Korea) initiated a new system to export labour based on agreement between the two governments. With this system in practice, remittance started to come home through financial/banking channel; fee of migrant workers came down drastically and income of the workers increased noticeably. Migrant Trade Union came into existence as a result of organizing efforts through GEFONT Support Group facilitated by GEFONT. This practice was expanded to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Qatar and other countries. Positive changes in labour practices have taken long strides based on context and applicability of concerned destination countries. The latest achievement is the end of Kafla system in Qatar with respect to labour right which has been celebrated by Nepali workers in the presence of organizations of international trade union movement.
4. 10% service charge: One of the demands put forth by the workers when they announced protest programme at Soaltee Hotel, Kathmandu in 1981 was to bring into implementation the 10% service charge for workers. GEFONT cautiously pushed this demand with those concerned and sensitised the workers about the pros and cons of ‘tips’ and ‘service charge’. If practice of ‘tips’ is to continue, it will provide high handedness of those who collect it and divide it because it will be at the will of the ‘collectors’ and would not be fair for the workers because such tips are not accounted and recorded. If ‘service charge’ is included in the invoice and accounted, it would maintain fairness to the workers and contributes to double their cash-in-hand along with wages. This was the stand of GEFONT, but it was not easy to convince the employers. It took 25 years to convince employers to accept the 10% service charge provision and bring it to practice. Also, the government agreed to it and implementation started from 2006. .
5. Minimum wage campaign: Though the declaration to implement minimum wage was made in 1965, area of its coverage was quite limited. Provision to revise minimum wage in every 2 years was included in the Labour Act 1991. The provision comparatively made the minimum wage systematic but failed to make the minimum wages uniform in thematic and national sectors. The Act instead classified the minimum wage in different 4 categories based on skills. It gave a pretext for the employers to understand the minimum wage as the ceiling of maximum wage in many cases. Some sectors remained indifferent to adhere to the minimum wage provision.
To address the confusion, GEFONT pushed the slogan of ‘equal minimum wage for all’. With the continued struggle over years, the workers are entitled to get equal minimum wages now. Some from international community were sceptical to our call for ‘minimum wages for workers’ stating that minimum wage provision might risk the minimum living standard of workers. But in recent days launching the ‘living minimum wage floor’ campaign has become common phenomena. It has given us more confidence to continue our wage movement to better the living standard of workers.
6. Labour policy: In the initial days of multi-party system, policy makers and bureaucrats had confused understanding about labour legislation and labour policy. To tear the confusion, GEFONT drafted a framework of labour policy in its second National Congress and took initiative to organise National Labour Conference in a tripartite frame. The debated and agreed issues and points provided basis for the government, employers and trade unions to build common understanding on labour policy and labour legislation. The initiative of building common understanding was started in 1994 and the result in the form of labour policy discussion was fruitful in 1998.
7. Gender equality: Central Women Workers Department established at GEFONT was a new initiative to mainstream gender in organisation’s life. Its spirit was to persuade the women to break the ‘culture of silence’ and speak up against oppression they had been enduring for centuries. It is only by sitting the oppressed and oppressor together and listening to each other that justice is possible. GEFONT affirmed this notion strongly. Therefore, it made mandatory at least 25 percent women’s participation in each programme and 25% men’s participation in Women’s programme. It promoted the culture of listening to each other and sorting out differences if any. GEFONT re-emphasised the issue through a new slogan ’not mere representation, but equal participation’. We identified discriminatory laws against women and amended them. Some laws were repealed. We could materialise the slogan of equal participation and proudly admit that GEFONT is one of the organisations to ensure at least 33 percent women’s representation in its structures.
We formed a Trade Union Committee for Equality & Promotion bringing different trade union centres together and worked to promote gender justice in our movement. The Committee identified 10 common gender issues to be addressed at workplace and it was negotiated by tripartite partners in Nepal.
8. Social security: At times, the topic of social security was like the title of a fairy-tale – interesting to listen but difficult to realise in reality. But now it has been the hot agenda. The campaign on social security that started in 2000 is yielding result through new constitution and Contributory Social Security Fund based on social security Act. The two-decade long campaign has now moved ahead with successful results.
9. Nepali trade union movement – model of Unity in Diversity: In early ‘90s, Nepali trade unions were like an arc enemy of each other. The environment was like chopping off each other for non-issue things. To rescue the unions from such quagmire and protect them from peril, concept of Joint Trade Union Coordination Centre (JTUCC) was developed and efforts were made to start harmonise each other. Nobody believed that the trade unions would come together and work on issues of common concerns. But the trade unions made that possible what once was beyond mind of many. We started a new practice of organising Labour Parliament every year where Prime Ministers and Presidents of Nepal have participated as guest of honour and also Director General of ILO for deliberations on trade union agenda. This practice has been a model for trade unions in different countries.
However, we still have a long way to go. We have to continue our campaign to guarantee 10% representation of workers in representative bodies of the state. We have to continue the pressure for formation of multilateral Socio-Economic Council for policy dialogue and National Labour Commission for justice.
Forthcoming days are also full of challenges. GEFONT has to move ahead with its entire committed leaders-cadres-members and working masses towards the long-run path of socialism through clear ideological stance, practical and implementable programmes and periodic plans. Our movement is on the solid ground of the experiences of 4-generations experiences and ups and downs though developed within a short span of time. On top of it, we have put all our efforts to establish socialism oriented State to bring an end to all forms of inequalities and exploitations. Socialism is not only our long-term goal, but also our future. Hence, following programmes are proposed for the upcoming tenure of the National Executive Committee:
1. Consolidated Democracy and Socialism for Workers
The goal of GEFONT ‘dignified and creative life for the working class …’ cannot be realised without consolidated democracy. Democracy will be consolidated for the working class when prosperity comes to their life. Therefore, we have designed the theme of this Congress – ‘Prosperous working class in consolidated democracy’ to keep the agenda of working class at the heart of the Congress.
Of the 17 SDGs to be achieved by 2030, six are directly related to the world of work. To achieve them by the stipulated time, particularly for elimination of poverty, decent work agenda and minimisation of inequalities, the entire GEFONT will be mobilised with due focus on socio-economic transformation for faster development of the country and consolidation of democracy. For this,efforts will be focussed to strengthen GEFONT’s institutional and structural capacity.
Campaign will be continued to guarantee 10% representation of working class in all people’s representative bodies and to transform the capita-tilt character of State to pro-worker character.
Campaign focusing on class and social inclusion will be taken forward to ensure Class plus Three balance and to end discriminations based on class, gender, ethnicity and geography in our journey to socialism.
Entire labour force will be mobilised in all three regimes of politics, labour market and economy for social stability, peace and prosperity, and to transform and manage conflicts between classes, and elevate working class to middle class.
2. Organizational Development and Mobilisation
There will be three key objectives to strengthen the capacity of organisational structure of GEFONT at all levels:
Therefore, we will prioritise the following activities to expand the effectiveness of labour force, union movement and GEFONT:
Our triangular strategy to develop and mobilise labour power is increasingly relevant these days. We will give a boost to the strategy to expand its scope focusing labour force engaged in wage employment, self-employed labour force within country, and the labour force employed abroad. We will enlarge the limit of development and mobilisation of organisation in:
3. Labour Market Reforms
The country’s economy in the eyes of the working class is the socialism oriented economy. This is possible only by transforming the existing labour market enduring in the quagmire of injustice and exploitation. Therefore, Economic and Social Council needs to be formed in both the House of Representatives (HR) and the Provincial Assembly so as to address the workers agenda directly by the parliament.
Kathmandu Valley is at highest points while looking at the Indicators of Labour Productivity, Individual Capability and Household Happiness, however, other areas are far behind. Therefore, pressure and partnership is essential to uplift the position of workers at least equal to those of the valley.
Adjustment of wages with inflation rate or price hike through wage-indexation will be given priority in the coming days. High wages, humane working conditions and social security for all workers wil be the major agenda for labour market reforms. In short, following will be the policy basis for labour market reform:
Activities and Campaign of Priority:
4. Strengthening Unity and Solidarity
In present political context of unity and polarisation, the union movement also needs to take a path by unifying as many trade unions as possible. This is the new course of movement, where the JTUCC will also continue with additional revision of its structure. Now, the JTUCC needs to be expanded in the provincial level, too. Through these structures of unity and solidarity, our efforts can give outcomes to make all levels of government more workers-friendly. Internalising this assumption, following three actions will be launched:
5. Gender Equality
The programme passed by the Sixth Congress needs to be further consolidated. This Congress stresses on the modification of the earlier theme: “Make it happen” to “Let it consolidate through action”. This Congress proposes to achieve 33% women representation at all level, end gender based discrimination, promote work-life balance, zero tolerance on violence against women, and continue to increase women members. Based on these themes, gender equality campaign will be launched:
6. Youth Mobilisation
Nepali Trade Union movement has three generation of workers at present: the first is around 60 years of age, the second above 40 and the third below 40 years. The first generation is in the process of getting rest from the work whereas the second stands as the backbone of the trade union movement. In this context, the following are the youth focused action agenda:
7. Protection of Workers working Abroad
We have significant achievements in the protection of Nepali workers in foreign employment. It has become more relevant with respect increasing number of workers abroad. In this context, GEFONT will give emphasis to the following in forthcoming days:
8. Organising Academy
The concept of organising academy emerged from the last Congress for the bright future of the movement and thus it needs further strengthening:
9. Communication and Publicity
Following activities will be carried out with prime importance keeping in mind the inevitability of attention in communication and dissemination:
10. Agenda of Contemporary Concern
The environmental problem has come to a fearful situation and the climate change problem has turned to an adverse. In this context, our effort will be focussed on the following :