Nepal: A search for social justice

Dev Raj Dahal,

FES, Nepal Office

Introduction: The great transformation of the West has been triggered by industrial revolution—blue collar workers, raw materials and capital were its key resources. Industrial workers were unionized and had job security, pension, paid vacations and life-time employment established through free collective bargaining. They were visible agents of change. Before it domestic servants, bonded labors, slaves and unorganized workers and farmers were in predominance. Cities provided new recruits from rural areas.  But, now the capacity of cities is declining. Techno-driven globalization has reduced time and space and made development a post-state process. Workers have, therefore, to travel abroad to earn their living. Nearly 3 million Nepalese working abroad are concerned about the fate of global economy to the place of their work. The information revolution has challenged the constitutional and political status quo and entailed participatory form of democracy, human rights including core labor rights, social justice, environmental preservation and peace. This new consciousness has also legitimized new forms of collective action. Unions have therefore, developing global space to reject "subordinated development," demanding "co-determination" of public policy at various levels of governance through globalization of union movement and seeking "restructuring of property relations in society" for distributive justice. This paper discusses on labor and politics, centrality of politics and union's changing position in Nepal, state, capital and union, leadership and mass participation in politics and the role of international cooperation.

Labor and Politics: Labor and politics are strongly correlated as relation of production and its entire cycle is decided by political decisions. Democratic politics helps to expand the scope of public sphere and brings the policy questions to the workers for debate, refinement and endorsement as well as social control. This means democratic politics is positively related to the welfare of workers. Over three decades-- 1950s to 1970s-- the Keynesian welfare state subsidized the poor through social security mechanism and favored constructive role of trade unions in democratic countries. Even in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe "social contract" built on subsidy, social housing, free health care and free education inspired workers  to  support the political system though they granted less civic freedoms.

But, the transition of state socialism to democracy is the outcome of several trends: perestroika and glasnost of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union unleashed de-Sovietization and de-satellization of many countries; it led to negotiation between communist and opposition parties in Hungary and Poland; putsch in the inner circle of party in East Germany and Bulgaria provoked mass revolt as they prevented compromise; and democratic revolution from below in Romania. The rulers in all these countries failed to rule in old ways. In the 1990s following the collapse of state-socialism until early 2000 the rise of liberal market governments preferred drastic cut in subsidy, union demobilization, labor market flexibility, deregulation, outsourcing of economy and privatization of benefits. The social democratic parties of Europe also invented "new labor," and tried to redefine relationships with trade unions. The trade union movements of Sweden, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US are certainly political. But they are primarily defensive in their political attitude and now seems very reactive to global financial crisis.

Many of the unions have a very limited ability to confront the challenge of capital and the state though "social and liberal democracies" promise free and independent union movements. The reason is despite political character of unions they have functioned more as a "pressure group" within political system for the representation of sectoral interest, secondary to political parties and the state. Moreover, some unions are like as business unions, laying emphasis on co-operation with employers and the state. In this context, trade unions largely complement rather than collectively bargain with employers. Similarly, the participation of unions in the state means that they accept the status quo of state objectives, rules and institutions. It is easy to co-opt in the state if unions are centralized. If unions are decentralized it increases high cost for the state to co-opt without fulfilling workers rights. Especially, in leader-dominated unions collective bargaining becomes easy as they are more interested in personal career than pursuing members' interests in the industrial sphere.

Institutionalized unions seek to influence governments' policy irrespective of the party in office.  In the US, unions are more like pressure groups, in social democratic states unions are part of party politics, in the Japanese case, union's domination of the socialist party has led to the increased isolation of the party from becoming catch-all and mass-based. This is the reason Labor Party of UK invented new labor. A decline in working class politics has led it to the class restructuring in all liberal democratic states particularly that associated with increased professionalism and de-politicization. The re-composition of class structures has revolved around the nature of capital. There has been a decline in manual unionism and the expansion of non-manual unionism in developed countries, due to economic structuring and neo-liberalism. China preferred "social market economy" and evolved its own version of "political system at the grassroots level." The Nepalese trade unions have the exposure to all these trends and have learned lesions about how to proceed in national context.

Centrality of Politics and Unions' Changing Position in Nepal: Since politics is decision making system the access of unions to this system is central to create an egalitarian society and mutual adjustment of capital and labor. The trends below explains the evolution of trade union and the nature of their coalitions with various institutions of society.

A Phase of Subordination to Party Politics: The first phase of union politics in Nepal can be characterized by their subordination to party politics. This is the general trend of South Asian model of union development. In the first phase of democratization in the 1950s, democracy movements of parties, trade unions and civil society groups in Nepal were coordinated. During this period political parties framed the agenda, put negotiable demands to the state, mobilized unions, party cadres and civil society along professional and class lines, removed the conventional division of politics into the right and the left and built solidarity for collective action. Fear of curtailing their constitutional and universal human rights and the prospect of a better future shaped their collective behavior. It established a constitutional democracy in the country. But, the tendency of political leadership to subordinate workers or use them as subordinate partners has left them dissatisfied often ready to fight for their rights and rightful place in society. Diverse ideological orientations of unions have barred their collective action. From 1960 to 1990 unions were legally suspended but they helped the struggle of political parties for democracy in a clandestine way.

Patron-Client Model: Like in the Egypt and Senegal, the relationship of political parties with trade union was defined by patron-client model as unions were assumed as welfare-recipient group of the state and fraternal organization of parties. In the second phase of democratization of 1990s, while political leadership had mainly set their interest in the democratization of politics unions were interested in the democratization of politics, economy, society and international relations. They preferred workers proportional representation in political power. During this period, the legalization of unions and cooperation among various unions had increased.  Party movement often ended in the transition to a new power equation while workers’ movement aspired for greater restructuring of capital and greater share in social transformation. It is, therefore, essential to look workers movement as a voice for equitable progress and innovation. The tendency of political parties to treat trade unions as subordinate actors has weakened their role and image in the second phase. The representation of workers in the decision-making was pathetic. This is the reason the process of establishing economic democracy remained weak.

Collaborative Action: In the third phase of democratization that began with April 2006 inter-movement solidarity of unions, parties and civil society eloquently presented the transformative potential as they defined alternative vision, goals, issues and strategies and attempted to create open space for horizontal networks of organizations to organize joint activities against authoritarian regime. Trade unions and civil society revitalized the life of political parties but pushed them for more democratization and more egalitarianism. The international solidarity of unions has also increased through social forums and social movements. This trend in the union politics do emphasize on democracy, inclusion, workers control, participation and empowerment.

Relative Autonomy from Party Politics: In the fourth phase, trade unions are struggling for autonomy from party politics while linking themselves to civil society actors for collective action. Like in South Africa, unions of Nepal in the fourth phase sought collaboration with political parties, developed inter-union framework Joint Trade Union Coordination Committee (JTUCC), and struggled for space in the various committee of parties for voice and representation in the Constituent Assembly. It is fostering inner party democracy in Nepal.This new phase can also be characterized by some form of "autonomy" of unions from party politics. The sustained union movement will likely to democratize internal party politics and the state if the social energy they unleashed does not die down due to their division, fragmentation and resubordination. Likewise, it will also help to democratize union structures and give women, youth and informal sector workers legitimate voice, visibility and representation over the actions of leadership. That the vision of cooperation among unions is transcending its partisan character is a salutary effort. To beef up its strength in the democratization, the unions have first to be inclusive, flexible in seeking cooperation among themselves, prevent the tendency of fragmentation of leadership, deepen links with grassroots and informal sectors and muster resources for increasing their competitiveness against other actors of society.

Alignment with Civil Society, NGOs and Human Rights Organizations: Many NGOs in Nepal are working in the field of domestic workers and migrant workers while human rights organizations are working in bonded labor, child labor, girl trafficking, women and the rights of marginalized groups. Nepalese Unions have to collaborate on any issues that engages the spheres of labor and work so that they can become able to establish themselves as a relevant functional group of society. There are new trends in union politics, for example, in Ghana unions withdrew from party politics and began collaboration with civil society while in Nigeria and Zimbabwe unions form "opposition politics" and struggling to make governments accountable to the demands of workers for social justice.

Strategic Objectives and options for Nepalese Unions: Labour movements are cooperating sufficiently to uphold shared interests and have economic goals of advancing welfare politics, such as employment security, respect for trade union rights, social security and organisational articulation and peace. The choice model of economic and ideological considerations drives trade union movements in Nepal.  Trade union politics confronts the hegemony of capital, both national and international, where public interests are subordinated to the logic of market-integrated society. The trade union movement is closely related to political parties and its development and decay depend on the performance of political parties and the nature of political regime. Women and Dalit movements cut across party politics and reject existing stereotypes. All these forces seek to construct protected space to define the boundaries of collective identity through the process of acting together in the course of their movements.

Trade unions and women's movements have, to a considerable extent, become more successful to forge coalitions across the national borders compared to the Dalits and have achieved considerable success in the politicisation of women in general and working women in particular. Foreign assistance for Dalit and women's empowerment in Nepal has enhanced better the scope of the movements compared to the trade unions which are suffering from mass layoffs due to de-industrialisation, cuts in agriculture subsidies, migration of workers, squeezing labour market and domestic conflict. Political parties in Nepal would have become stronger had they accorded priority on the expansion of industrial and economic development and accorded legitimate space for the institutionalization of trade unions' role in development. The governments often took union demands as a matter of law and order, took the side of capital and postponed pluralist sense of justice. But, the "free collective bargaining process" of the trade unions, their system of representation in economic decision-making ] and their social dialogue with the state and employers are better institutionalised than the other two forces. If trade unions become successful to enlarge their political constituencies by integrating other social organizations and agriculture sector workers they will have greater capacity, voice and visibility in the policy domain. History has examples where even subordinate groups have lifted themselves to higher stages of development where they have been able to build coalitions for action.

As the post-1991 leadership opted for a centralised polity, despite rhetoric of democracy and decentralisation, it basically projected the interests of the dominant class consisting of bureaucracy, political class, big business houses and urban professionals and did not the aggregate desires and aspirations of majority of people distanced from the centre of power. This left the social agenda of democratisation of social forces largely unrealised. After the political change of April 2006 mass upsurge the political struggle in Nepal is centred on who should participate in the determination of people's sovereignty over the state power and how and restructuring of the state to address class, caste, gender, ethnic and regional disparity, durable peace and development is possible. In this context class issue is almost sidelined. (to be concluded with The State, Capital and Union next week.

The State, Capital and Union: In the 1990s the discourse on "farewell to nation-state" in favour of free access of capital progressively eroded the state sovereignty accompanying an alteration in the medium of power from the political to the economic as well as growing influence and legitimacy of trans-national actors. This also propelled trade union actors to agitate  for a new social contract. The coherence and integration of society maintained by the centrality of the state suffered radical de-centring giving ways to the proliferation of several dissatisfied social groupings which defined their own system of rights, legitimacy, authority and justification.  In everyday public life, Nepalis are no longer bounded by the government agenda communicated by Radio Nepal, Nepal Television and official newspapers. The structural and ideological change occurring at the global level reconstructed the patronage character of the emerging state structures and entailed it to construct national public domain for sub-national forces and social movement groups as well as challenge the problem of "post-national constellation." There is also competition among the trade unions for scarce resources. Therefore, need for a consensus and cooperation is imperative for effective public action. The emerging global crisis entailed the need for a regulatory state thus the new discourse on "bringing the state back in" has set in. The workers' remittance contributes nearly 18 percent to Nepal's GDP and they constitute the vote bank of political parties.

Grassroots social movement of people's representatives for greater consolidation of local struggles into institutional power, democratisation of decision-making, devolution of power and a more people-oriented approach to development is close to trade unions. Dissolution of all elected bodies—the parliament and local bodies by the elected prime minister—created a "democracy vacuum" and paved way for nomination of party workers in public institutions fostering a clientalist regime. Re-linking of social struggles of NGOs, trade unions, civil society and civic groups can potentially synergise new social movements but they have to include two main dimensions—a democratic dimension and a national dimension and their continuous politicisation for the reinvention of citizenship by way of public action. The social movements of workers have challenged the primacy of capital in property relations through the globalization of political economy and systemic crisis it has produced now due to "privatization of profit and socialization of cost" in industrial relations.

Leadership and Mass Participation in Politics: Only a constitutional state can facilitate mass participation in politics. Union leadership is transformational, rather than transactional, which is evident in party politics. The leadership has to struggle against the bias of international community to include political parties, NGOs and consultancy farms in the country cooperation framework for development while excluding the labor from it. Without critical weight they will continued to be negated. Transformative leadership is the key concept of workers all over the world as popular civil society groups. It is opposed to transactional leadership which is the dominant characteristic of the South Asian state system and party politics where leader-followers relationship is determined by exchange deal. A transactional leadership acts more like an administrator in an organization, takes care of small group interest, beefs up its position thorough unequal clients, communicates in a vertical manner and resolves conflicts through coercive means. In transformational leadership, incentive and reward system is based on performance criteria and conflict is resolved by negotiation and consensus.

The power to shape modern civilization rests on workers' imagination and dream of transformation through public education, greater practical skills, higher wages and dignified life. But, there is a great gap between the organized and unorganized, white collar and blue collar workers generated by geography, society and access to modernity. This gap is a threat to social and system integration as the stake and accountability of diverse youths to the system are unequal. True solidarity means fighting for the weaker and marginalized members of society and discovering means to participate in the transformation of their unjust condition.

Role of International Cooperation: Trade unions' unity at all levels is important to wage workers' social struggle. At the global level, International Labor Organization and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung are cooperating at the tri-lateral and bilateral framework respectively. The formation of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on November 1, 2006 has become a new source of strength and hope for the united power of trade unions and their members worldwide to cope with the challenges of globalization which has created more losers, than winners. International solidarity of Nepalese unions with Global Union Federations (GUFs) and International Trade Secretariats (ITSes) is growing in recognition of common humanity and collective identity. They are providing Nepalese workers exposure, skills, support and transnational collective action to restore the capacity of workers to reshape economic system according to their ecological, social and political priorities. A just world order requires substantial redistribution of global resources.

At the South Asian level, collaboration of trade unions is an imperative to cope with the regional challenges. The regional collective action of Social Forum, Peoples SAARC,  South Asian Finance Sector Union Council (SFFSUC) and the South Asian Trade Union Council (SARTUC) is necessary to articulate the agenda of social charter, energy security, food sovereignty, labor rights, debt reduction, democracy and peace dividends but insufficient to enforce them unless these agendas are included into public policy domain. The official SAARC process stresses more on upward integration through South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) which has caused social polarization. Still, regional cooperation provides the workers to defend their national interest and negotiate the common regional interest. South Asian unions, labor institutes of the region and popular forces have to cement their ties to effectively articulate their legitimate concerns for proportional sharing of benefits from regional cooperation.

 Conclusion: The Nepalese trade unions have to adapt with the changing dimension of politics—and work to seek the fulfillment of workers rights and welfare. Nepal's particular challenge of union is to make politics public and democratic character capable of addressing the subjective and objective needs of public. Low wage earners, agricultural and informal sector workers require union's support in organizing the integration of left out sectors in the labor market. The central level federations have to organize concrete programs for economic development such as workers cooperatives, micro-credit, community health, affirmative action for dispossessed, service centers, co-production of public goods and service and encourage the participation of workers in local peace committees.  This helps to improve unions' image as wealth producers of society and de-colonizers of workers life. The reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regards for its general moral, social and political consequences, however, does not make workers' life stable. Therefore, engagement of workers in work, labor and action is critical to their dignified life, liberty, property and peace.  Thanks the author: Ed.

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