Last week, like many other countries across the globe, Nepal too observed May Day as the day for workers and labourers. May Day originated in the 19th century in the western world and is aped by the "new" Nepal of the 21st century. Many countries the world over celebrate the day as a public holiday, and the "new" Nepal does not lag behind in following blindly what is practised in other countries because what is done elsewhere must have been done for the good of the people.
Nepal has been observing May Day or Labour Day as a public holiday for the past two decades, and it is hoped that the day will help the working class attain a better standard of living and give them greater freedom and a share in the products they help to manufacture or make. Whether in the "old" or "new" Nepal, all are agreed that the workers should not be exploited by their employers in both private and public sectors.
Do good for the working class is not a new thing introduced in the 21st century. The centre and the left-of-the-centre thinking has almost always been that workers have been exploited the world over and they need to rise up to claim their legitimate rights. The labour strife in many countries resulted in a better deal for the workers, but in some countries workers continue to be exploited. In countries like Nepal too, there is a need to do more for the workers than at present. The labourers may have to resort to confrontation with the owners of different types of work, including units, to get their fair share.
But the way labour unions and organisations are set up in this country is not exactly for the benefit of the labourers. Just like student unions, labour unions too are affiliated with one political party or the other with the result that there is almost always conflict of interest among the different labour unions that are in existence in the organised sector.
The industrial unrest is largely responsible for the sluggish growth of the country’s economy, and the labour leaders would do well to note that while agricultural production is inadequate to support the country’s ever rising population and the country has to depend on imports to meet its basic food needs, the industrial and related sectors, which should have registered notable gains to offset the agricultural sector shortfall, have registered only marginal growth.
According to the government’s latest Economic Survey, "Initial estimate is that Nepal’s economic growth rate in the current fiscal year will be limited to 3.5 per cent in comparison to 4.5 per cent GDP growth achieved in FY 2009/10. Major reason for such a decline in the growth rate is due to sluggishness in the economic activities of the non-agriculture sector. Causes like labour issues, reduced electricity supply, decrease in expansion of bank credits, and dawdling remittance flow adversely affected economic activities of this sector."
Labour unions ought, one would think, work for the welfare and betterment of the working class and not work as rivals to benefit one political party or the other.
The past decade or so, a large number of industries were registered by the government - many existed on paper only and some of those that went into steam had to close down due to industrial unrest. One of the joint ventures that produced a product that enjoyed a worldwide brand name had to close down. Closing down an industry by itself would have meant much if the workers employed in the factory could find employment elsewhere. But that is always difficult.
The closure of industries hits everyone hard, most of all the country which presently is seeking foreign investment. No investment is possible in any country where there is labour unrest and where there is no guarantee of reasonable returns on the investment. Only donors and governments that have motives shower investment and aid in such countries. This brings us back to the need for proper coordination and understanding among the unions professing different political ideologies. The clash of political ideologies mixed with insecurity, lawlessness and labour unrest is hardly the kind of scenario that attracts foreign investment which the country desperately needs.
The welfare of the workers should indeed be the prime concern of the labour unions as well as that of the owners of industries and big business houses, including financial institutions. Such owners, including the government, which owns a number of different corporations must ensure the welfare of the workers and provide them with necessary incentives so that the workers can give their top performance not merely for the sake of the company or firm or industry but for the country as well.
Exploitation of workers in any form must be avoided, and the labour unions themselves must learn to place the interests of the workers above those of the political parties with which they are affiliated. Our political parties seem always to be at loggerheads most of the times, and they are seen to be using its affiliates like the labour and students unions to serve their own political purpose. (Whether they actually do so or not is a different matter.)
It is differing political ideologies that have hampered the writing of the country’s constitution so far, and there is indeed no guarantee that the May Day that the country observed may not turn out to be a Mayday call!