Five things … about life and being union in Nepal

Executive Officer, Kate Lee recently visited Nepal to assess the projects supported by Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA since the earthquake that devastated the country on April 25, 2015.

Five things about life and being union in Nepal

  1. Over 70% of Nepal’s workforce are in agriculture, most of it to earn a subsistence living, not for wage or profit. An average wage for a domestic worker is about 100 Nepal Rupees per day (about $1 US) or for construction workers about 300 Nepal Rupees (or $3 US) per day. If you are lucky enough to have a job in construction, banking, teaching, health care, energy, transport you might be organised into its union movement of over 1.5 million members!  As a strongly organised force (second only to the policy and army), the union movement was able to mobilise quickly and effectively during the 2015 earthquake relief effort
  1. Nepal’s union culture is vibrant. Workers first started organising in Nepal in 1947. But a coup in 1960 led to the banning of all political parties and thirty years of repression with unions operating underground in almost impossible conditions. At the end of a ten-year civil war from 1996-2006, fought by progressive parties and unions for a federal democracy, the monarchy was eventually overthrown and a republic established. Union leaders were killed or disappeared during this period, known as the ‘people’s war’.
  1. Nepal’s trade union movement is unique compared to many other union movements of Asia – in 2007, all the national trade union organisations equivalent to the ACTU (there are three main national groups), agreed to work together in a new united group. This was, and still is, a credit to the movement given that in prior years there was conflict, suspicion and violence between differing union groupings. This show of strength has enabled the union movement to grow in numbers but also lever political influence with a new government and new constitution. Current demands of the united union movement include a Labour Commission and labour inspectors (Nepal has neither), a social security system and training and jobs in construction to rebuild the 800,000 homes damaged after the 2015 earthquake.
  1. Poor rural women carry the burden of poor health from work. In 2015, Australian unionists helped fund post-earthquake re-build in poor rural villages. Nepal’s unionists that ran this program also set up emergency health clinics in villages. They found that the overwhelming health problem identified by women was a prolapsed uterus caused not just by multiple births but by the heavy lifting and carrying work that these women do – brickmaking and carrying of loads of bricks, water, firewood, manure etc are   common jobs for these rural women.
  1. 515,000 Nepalese migrated for work last year mainly to Malaysia and the Gulf states, increasing those from Nepal living abroad to over 2.2 million. Work opportunities were scarce for many after the earthquake and receiving countries have started paying the costs for visas and airfares making it cheaper to migrate for work. But this work is often risky – for the young women working as domestic servants or as the men working in slavery in construction of the FIFA stadium in Qatar and exposed by the International Trade Union Confederation. A shocking 26% of Nepal’s GDP comes from the remittances sent home by these workers to their families, showing that while the system is broken, it is unlikely to change any time soon. Nepal needs hundreds of thousands of workers in the coming year for post-earthquake reconstruction, these will be jobs that will keep some workers at home and connected to their families.

And a sneaky sixth one … Last year, Nepal’s government introduced new laws to crack down on drink driving. It goes like this. You are pulled over by police in downtown Kathmandu to assess if you have been drinking. If you have ANY evidence of a SINGLE drink about you, you go to the police station. At the station, members of your family including kids, are called in for a group shaming exercise in which you are humiliated for putting your family (or someone else’s family) at risk of losing a loved one. Then you go home. You never drink and drive again. A public health campaign with very effective results!

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