Solidarity across borders: trade unions from Nepal visit Belgium

The leadership of the three main Nepali trade unions came to Belgium at the end of October 2016 to look into adapting trade union models to a federal state, social elections and social security. The visit was supported by World Solidarity (WSM) and the Belgian trade union ACV-CSC.

By Bruno Deceukelier, WSM

Nepal is going through a lot of changes. After the 2015 earthquakes and the end of an eight year transition period, a constitution was adopted which transformed the mountainous country into a federal state with seven provinces. This also implies structural changes for the three Nepali trade unions, which are looking into how to re-organise themselves. The unions are taking the opportunity to assess their representability, and in this context, the example of the Belgian social elections were studied. Also, a draft Social Security Act is currently being put before Parliament, which provides historical universal coverage to all workers in Nepal through an initial four schemes: unemployment, maternity leave, retirement and medical care. These major achievements demand further attention of the trade union movement.

United under the JTUCC umbrella, six Presidents and General Secretaries from the three ITUC affiliates in Nepal, each with their own ideology, history and approach, undertook a joint visit to Brussels, which was hosted by WSM and ACV-CSC. The hosts detailed how social elections are organised in Belgium, from the company-level campaigning to the humorous videos made by the confederation to discuss topics such as burn-outs and balancing private and professional life. The ACV-CSC catch phrase for the 2016 social elections “Your work is our job” were met with approval by the Nepali delegates. In May 2016, the first sector-wide social elections for public servants were held in Nepal. The Nepali system however currently focuses on the plant level, where elections mandate the winning trade union to negotiate solely with management for the next two years. Belgium has taken another route, with social elections organised nationwide every four years, mobilising candidates and resources to have elected workers from all trade unions representing workers’ interests at company-level. While trade unions often have to work together to defend workers’ issues, they are also competing during the social elections to consolidate their base and position. Good results in elections validate and boost the approach and issues of a given trade union, and will strengthen its bargaining power considerably. But fundamentally, as one participant said: “This is the basis of an economic democracy, with all workers expressing themselves.”

The opportunities and benefits of institutionalising social dialogue at various levels were also discussed. As Marc Leemans, President of ACV-CSC explained: “Collective bargaining in Belgium starts at the national level, and any agreement made there serves as a minimum from which, on a sectoral level, more can still be obtained for workers regarding minimum wages or other labour standards.”

The Nepali delegation and ACV-CSC also discussed social security and current challenges in Belgium and Europe, where these systems are under attack. This has a relevance in the process of federalising a country and delegates highlighted how important it is to keep social security and labour acts on a federal level, in order to avoid companies displacing internally, creating internal social dumping. The informal economy was the topic of further interesting exchanges. While the Nepal informal economy has always been important and key sectors for organising by the Nepali trade unions, Belgium is seeing the growth of companies like Uber that informalise sectors like the taxi or hotel industries. Since the “self-employed” workers within these organisations pay no taxes and aren’t covered by social security, trade unions in Belgium also have to adapt and strategise on these issues.

The visit included ACV-BIE, the construction federation in Belgium with which the Nepali trade unions already work on issues of labour migration to the Gulf States. The delegation also went to the regional ACV service center in Brussels, which handles the unemployment benefits for their members. The six Nepali leaders took the opportunity of their weeklong stay in Brussels to interact with policy makers from Belgian Foreign Aid and the European Union and visited the ITUC offices in Brussels.

From this visit, the Nepali delegates will determine with their respective trade unions what elements are relevant for Nepal, and use this as an input for the upcoming JTUCC Labour Parliament, which will take place on the 14th of December in Kathmandu in presence of ILO Director, Guy Ryder.