In Nepal, unions are still struggling to promote democracy and the rights of workers, reports the Solidarity Center’s Tim Ryan from Kathmandu.
||A GEFONT member casts her ballot in the national union election.
In 2006, the democratic trade unions of Nepal took to the streets to push out the country’s autocratic king and usher in a new phase of democracy in this poor, mountainous country. Since then, the former Maoist insurgents have been brought uneasily into the political process, and they actually succeeded surprisingly in forming the current parliamentary government – but democracy and justice for workers are still a distant vision.
The threat to Nepal’s fragile democracy, plus the impact of the global economic crisis, led more than 50 trade union organizations from 30 countries around the world to Nepal last week in a show of solidarity at two national conventions of the democratic trade union movement here—the Nepal Trade Union Congress-Independent (NTUC-I) and the General Federation of Nepali Trade Unions (GEFONT). For the past five years, the Solidarity Center has been working with Nepalese unions to increase membership, assist in labor law reform, and, now that democratic space has opened up, encourage the unions to engage with their parliament.
The story of Kumar, however, is painful proof that the Maoists are far from being cooperative. I met Kumar (not his real name) at the NTUC-I convention, held in the regional city of Birganj. More than 1,000 delegates attended from all over the country, some traveling days to get there, in order to discuss policy and elect leaders. An average of about three candidates ran for each officer and executive council position. Campaigning was high-spirited, featuring demonstrations, songs and dances, prolific leafleting, and processions in an open venue dotted with colorful tents. It was followed by an impressive free and transparent voting process.
Kumar stood by, solemn and subdued, watching all the commotion, not attempting to join in. “I just got out of the hospital after spending two weeks there,” he told me. “My nose is still broken and I need an operation.”
Kumar is the president of a casino union in the capital city Kathmandu and a national NTUC-I vice president. He was at work when a mob of Maoist thugs entered the casino and attacked him. His members tried to defend him. “But the Maoists beat me all over,” he said. As he shuffled away into the raucous hoopla of the campaigning, holding onto the shoulder of his ten-year-old son, he looked so damaged it seemed his bones might come apart.
So while the Maoists have joined the national political process, their trade union front continues its intimidating ways, attacking democratic unions and employers with naked violence and extortion. Despite this blatant aggression, the democratic unions—especially NTUC-I and GEFONT, aligned with the mainstream leftist United Marxist-Leninist Party—have reached out to the Maoist union to try to bring it to the table and develop consensus on pushing progressive labor law reform.
One young NTUC-I cadre with whom I spoke was highly skeptical. “They are still bandits,” said Ashok, a leader of the Rickshaw Workers Union. “They don’t care about collective bargaining or a relationship with the employers or the economic progress of the country. All they care about is strikes and violence.”
At the GEFONT convention, held simultaneously in Kathmandu, a senior GEFONT officer agreed that the Maoists were continuing their violence, and they were anything but democratic. “The Maoist party tells the union who will be the leadership,” he pointed out. “They are totally controlled by the party.” Nevertheless, GEFONT leaders believe that on some level the Maoists have to be engaged, both in politics and in the labor movement, in order to be reined in. A top-ranked NTUC-I leader echoed this approach. “We need to get them under a joint trade union umbrella, with a code of conduct, and enmesh them in a legal system in order to move them in a responsible direction,” he said. One of the goals is a united union approach on reforming the country’s labor laws: “If they do not support the reforms, they could wreck the process.”
Update: "Kumar" asked the Solidarity Center to post his real name, TP Khanal, and title, NTUC-I Deputy General Secretary. As of July 27, 2009, he is still awaiting surgery and has not returned to work since the attack. His assailants remain at large.