Workers of all hues need to uniteOrganising workers in trade unions is key to implementing the new labour-related laws.
Nepali trade union leaders have expressed a common concern that implementing two major labour-related laws—Labour Act 2017 and Contributions Based Social Security Act 2017—could be a huge challenge. This is understandable considering that every law and policy made by the government has never adequately been translated into practice. It is essential for trade unions to pursue the implementation of these laws as they will ensure decent employment, secure the future of the workers and their families, and begin the formalisation of the informality of work. Consequently, trade unions need to identify swift strategies to create a supportive environment. Among them, concentrating their efforts and initiatives on organising workers, particularly those from the informal sector, in unions could be one.
The Labour Act has not spelt out the terminologies formal and informal sectors. Further, it is applicable even to an enterprise or industry where there is only one worker. This implies that the Labour Act encompasses all workers from both the formal and informal sectors within its jurisdiction. The Contributions Based Social Security Act has also included workers involved in the informal sector as its beneficiaries. According to this piece of legislation, all workers whether they work in an industry or at home or are self-employed are entitled to the socio-economic benefits enshrined in law.
What the data says
The Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017-18 reveals that 7.1 million persons out of the country's total population of 29 million are employed; and among them, more than 62 percent are employed in the informal sector. Trade union leaders have claimed that only around 7 percent of the workers in the country are organised in trade unions. The data suggests that informal economic activities generate the most jobs. Unfortunately, the workers engaged in the informal sector are largely excluded from national and international labour related instruments as well as the economic system, and trade union access to them is weak at best.
Besides, the global trend of hiring workers on the basis of periodic contracts, outsourcing, contractors, daily wage and piece rate is also rapidly increasing in the country. This hinders trade unions from carrying out their activities, including the major responsibility of organising and retaining workers in unions. Employers are keen to reduce the number of permanent and formal or regular workers, resulting in an increasing number of precarious workers, or those denied the rights of permanent employees.
As the newly enacted labour-related laws are equally applicable even to the workers in the informal sector, it can be surmised that trade union leaders face seemingly huge challenges when fighting for their implementation. Also, it should be noted that it is difficult to safeguard the benefits stipulated by law to those workers who are engaged in the informal sector. The Contributions Based Social Security Act requires that all employers and employees be enlisted at labour offices in order to enjoy the socio-economic benefits granted by law.
While employers from the formal sector can be registered without any pressure from trade unions or the government, it is another matter to get employers in the informal sector registered because they are relatively small in size, scattered, ‘underground’, and unregulated in nature. Similarly, workers from the formal sector can take the initiative to get enlisted as they are organised and informed. But those who are unorganised and involved in the informal sector are neither informed about the benefits ensured by law nor are they led by any trade union so that they can become aware and get registered.
It is commendable that Nepali trade unions have been able to achieve such major milestones in the form of formulating the labour-related laws. And there are well-delivered policy documents to address and safeguard the rights, interests and wellbeing of the workers and their families. Hence, it has to be considered that this is a crucial time to transform the challenges into opportunities. To this end, one of the effective options that trade unions have is to expand their volume of membership by organising the maximum number of workers so that a large number of unorganised workers can access trade union structures. Their association with trade unions will transform their strength from individual to collective, and empower them to seek their rights and access the welfare schemes specified by law.
Organising workers in trade unions not only helps to build union strength and defend workers’ rights, but also promotes industrial relations and social dialogue as well as the formalisation of the informal economic sector. Therefore, trade unions need to take effective initiatives for organising unorganised workers from the informal sector to overcome the challenges in implementing the new laws. In the end, it should be understood that the value and importance of good policy is determined only by its being implemented on time and for all intended beneficiaries. As trade unions are a major part and parcel of the new labour laws, they are equally responsible for creating an apposite environment to get the laws implemented. For this, trade unions should reflect and act on organising workers primarily in the informal sector, otherwise, the magnificent words in the laws will have no meaning.
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