On International Labour Day, workers remain under lockdown racked with uncertainty caused by Covid-19 pandemicLabour right activists say the government has failed to assure workers’ safety and employment even if they have been languishing at home and abroad for a long time now.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
This year’s International Labour Day was a quiet affair. There were no rallies, no sloganeerings and no formal events to mark the day, as the entire country has remained under a lockdown since March 24.
The day was particularly sombre as hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers both within the country and abroad had been without jobs for more than a month and many salaried workers left without pay or furloughed by their employers due to the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nepal’s labour force has been hit hard by the crisis, which has halted all economic activities and shut down businesses, according to labour rights activists.
Amid fear and uncertainty of job losses and pay cuts, various labour rights groups and trade unions issued a joint statement on the occasion of the 131st International Labour Day to call on the government to ensure the safety of workers.
“The government is requested to ensure all the rights of workers protected by national and international conventions during the time of pandemic and crisis, including workers’ rights of receiving their salaries and safety of their lives,” read the statement issued by Joint Trade Union Coordination Center and National Network for Safe Migration.
Krishna Prasad Neupane, a lawyer and general secretary of the National Network for Safe Migration, said Nepali workers at home and abroad were living in the fear of either losing their jobs or coronavirus infection, but the government had failed to take the steps to allay their concerns.
“Tens of thousands of Nepali workers might return home anytime since labour destination countries are also creating pressures to take back their nationals. Also, workers have the right to return home,” Neupane told the Post. “But the government has failed to even come up with a message assurance to these workers.”
The International Labour Day could have been a perfect day for the government to honour the workers’ rights by coming up with the detailed plan of safely repatriating the Nepali workers stranded in various labour destination countries, Neupane said.
Many people who were surviving as daily wage workers in cities like Kathmandu have been forced to walk to their hometowns and villages as they were unable to buy food and pay rents without jobs. Janak Chaudhary, general secretary of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, a workers’ organisation close to the ruling Nepal Communist Party, said the plight of the low-income workers was further exacerbated by their employers.
“Their employers did not communicate about the impending crisis in time, nor did they pay attention to the government’s advisory. They risked the workers’ lives by putting them to work till the lockdown was finally enforced,” Chaudhary claimed. “Many workers had to walk to their home districts because their employers did not pay them and relief packages could not reach them due to mismanagement in relief distribution by the local level representatives.
”While Chaudhary acknowledges the devastation dealt to the economy by the Covid-19 emergency and the protracted lockdown, he is optimistic about the sectors like tourism and infrastructure projects bouncing back once the restrictions are eased.It is the foreign labour sector that he is most worried about.
“It is estimated that nearly 1 million migrant workers are likely to return home. Creating jobs for them is going to be tough because the government does not have reliable data on the number of migrant workers and the different levels of work skills they possess.” Chaudhary said. “During our discussion with the government representatives, they have assured us that they are working towards employment generation.
But the government should be aware that not all of them will be interested in working in the fields assigned by the government, say for example, the construction sector.”