JOSE ASSALINO has been holding the post of director at International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Nepal. He has worked in different capacities with ILO since 1994 and has served the organisation in countries such as Timor, Kosovo, Angola and Mozambique. He spoke with Terence Lee of THT Perspectives on the involvement of ILO in a number of crucial areas such as employment creation, drafting changes in the existing labour law and the challenges ahead for Nepal. Excerpts:
What are the priority areas for ILO in Nepal?
ILO Nepal has the same strategic objectives of ILO all over the world. International labour standards and fundamental principles and rights at work are one of our primary global objectives. Employment and income opportunities are second, while social security, social protection and social dialogue are third. In each country, the country office tries to support these strategic objectives through two instruments — the budget from ILO, which is not much and through technical co-operation projects in partnership with other development partners.
Within our framework of intervention, we’re working with the Ministry of Labour (MoL), employers and trade unions to complete the new labour laws, which has been going on for last seven or eight years. It seems that we are now on the right track. I’m optimistic about this.
We’ve also been assisting the government with a
specific programme to
eliminate child labour and forced labour. There are
concrete activities and
projects working in the area as well as gender mainstreaming, to give women an opportunity to participate
at all levels of these programmes. These are some of the things we do to move forward on the objective of international labour standards.
For creating employment, we’ve been implementing a number of technical input programmes with the ministry, especially in terms of skill development and employment creation. In the area of social security and protection, we’ve been working with the National Planning Commission for the design of this social protection framework and for the Social Security Act. We’ve also been helping to analyse the cost of these schemes envisioned by the government with different scenarios and what is affordable in terms of the budget. We’re also working with employers and trade unions for social dialogue. If all the work done today is relevant and important, and the government approves and implements the resolutions, it will be a success.
What kind of achievement has been made?
I won’t say that we have had fantastic achievement. But it is like a glass half-filled and you can look at it from your own perspective. In terms of legislation, labour reforms and child labour, problems still exist, but concrete steps have been taken and I believe our assistance has helped. Today, there are half a million children less involved in child labour than 10 years ago, so that’s something. Nepal has greater awareness about migration and protection of girls and women and training for government officials. In terms of employment, we did a lot of things but were too small for Nepal. Social dialogue is one area that we’ve made enormous progress. We’ve been able to get all the inputs from the trade unions and their views on the labour laws, which were earlier not possible. I’ve been holding meetings with employers and trade unions.
Are trade unions in Nepal too politicised and militant?
Labour disputes cannot be denied, but we have to think of the cause and the consequences. Many labour disputes are the consequences of an economy that is not developing to meet the expectations of the people. When I visited Nepalgunj, I spoke to the chamber of commerce who say they have no problem with trade unions. It’s because they have better electricity supply and the enterprises operate better and have a better profit margin to pay workers. I think this is the problem in the rest of the country. If an enterprise is faced with no electricity or constraints, they can’t produce and pay workers. Workers feel they have to be paid and that’s the conflict. It’s a catch-22 situation.
Nepal is going through intense political transformation and this has implications on everything, including the economy. In my country, Portugal, we went through the same thing. Nepal is in transition and so it’s normal that the parties will use all the instruments to get votes and the fact that they try to get the trade unions closer means they recognise their capacity to mobilise the masses. Also, workers want to lobby with political parties and this happens everywhere in the world. Employers also lobby with political parties.
The existing labour laws are not conducive for investment. What changes can we expect?
We’re definitely moving towards more flexibility in terms of recruitment, termination of contracts and everything. In reality, all parties are converging and everybody agrees on most of the things but what remains is just a couple of issue. The main problem is ‘No Work No Pay’ which the workers don’t accept. It is a difficult issue and so the role of the government is crucial. They have to make this decision when there are points that cannot be agreed upon. The government has to make a decision on which way to go but also continue the tripartite negotiations and talks as is happening now. The other good thing is that Nepal has ratified a number of international conventions and these can help the government make these decisions.
Nepal has a window of opportunity to discuss the labour law and social security at the same time. This was not there in the past and opens more possibilities for flexibility. I think everybody has to go ahead and make a more flexible law that facilitates more investment and employment.
What is the situation facing the migrant workers?
It’s bad because due to the economic situation in the country, there aren’t enough job opportunities. There are two perspectives to migration. Almost 30 per cent of the budget comes from remittance which is good, but employers complain about shortage of skilled labour and that is also true. Also, the poorest are ready to leave the country for any work, even without protection. This has be addressed and the MoL is aware of that. Migration is a movement that once starts is difficult to control and recruiting agencies evolve in the process — as this is a business, there are good ones and bad ones. We have been discussing this issue and we think we’ve to be more active. It’s bigger than us, but we’re keen to work with the government and other development partners for concrete projects to avoid migration and create employment. We can’t prevent migration till we give them alternative employment and so we first need
to create jobs and awareness to protect them.