Analysing the dimensions of trade union power is a relatively new field of research in Nepal. In 2020 and 2021 FES Nepal commissioned research projects and brought its expertise in this area to support a baseline study by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) Nepal, assessing the strength and weaknesses of the Nepalese labour movement based on the power resource approach (PRA).
The PRA is an analytical framework to support strategic discussions and decisions on how to build stronger unions. It distinguishes between four sources of union power: structural power, associational power, institutional power and societal power. It also lies at the heart of the global FES-project Trade Unions in Transformation.
The Kathmandu-based FES office first determined that there was a lack of data after exploring the area with union partners in the country in 2020. This observation led to teaming up with CLASS Nepal for the country’s first research project based on the PRA. It is also the first time ever, the PRA approach was used as a basis for a quantitative research approach. The team caught up with Rajib Timalsina, lead researcher on the project, for an interview:
Rajib: Our research focused on understanding the resources that trade unions in Nepal have for improving workers’ rights and increasing the bargaining power of labour. Most previous research has tended to focus on weaknesses or gaps in the movement, sometimes providing suggestions, but often in a generic way. The study is pioneer in its kind in Nepal and the path we chose allows for a detailed understanding of the power held by different trade unions, members, and the movement as a whole. This understanding provides a stronger foundation for revitalization.
The research approach was developed on the premise that, in the words of Stefan Schmalz and colleagues, who are pioneers in developing the PRA-approach, the workforce can successfully defend its interests by collective mobilisation of power resources. We tried to examine the ability of wage earners to assert their interests within the given Nepali political, cultural and economic context, guided by the Power Resource Assessment framework published by FES.
Rajib: Nepal has strong national unions and unions groupings. Nepali workers and unions certainly can withhold labour and have done so in the past in hospitality (both hotel and food services), transport, and certain retail services. At the same time, national confederates are important to maintain influence in the policy process (institutional power), and provide access to political power. More specifically, Nepali unions seek to leverage their political affiliations and affinities to achieve their ends. This approach to the exercise of power, which has its roots in the historical role of unions as extensions of the long-banned political parties, creates a strong base for unions to leverage. This facilitates mobilization, as ideological affinity and partisan identity can be relied on to ensure a membership base, and to build coalitions with other sister organizations of the affiliated political party. Unions have also been very successful, on paper at least, in creating further institutional power by getting the government to adopt a range of worker’s rights conventions as well as progressive labour laws.
However, as multiple respondents pointed out, the presence of many unorganized informal workers in Nepal’s labor force and the limited geographical concentration of unions in Nepal leaves many workers excluded. The union leadership as well as their organizing efforts do not reflect the membership’s composition in terms of gender, youths and minority backgrounds, which requires increasing diversity in membership and leadership.
The establishment of the bi-partisan Joint Trade Union Coordination Center (JTUCC) platform has increased the power of unions to make demands vis-à-vis not only employers but also the government, regardless of which patron party is in power. However, these coalition-building activities need to extend beyond the unions themselves. Union leaders, in consultation with their membership, could, as some have suggested, work more closely with Nepal’s social justice movements focused on geography, ethnicity and gender, who are also likely to be sympathetic to workers' issues to increase their societal power.
Rajib: The most prominent theme is the close ties between unions and political parties. This is a source of strength but also imposes limitations on the union movement. The successes of unions in achieving institutional power stems from the party-based relationships they have. On the other hand, pre-existing partisan political affiliation becomes a self-selecting bias that makes rank-and-file members more interested in politics than joining trade unions. It disincentivizes the participation of those who have a primary professional interest in the union. The public and non-members’ perception that politics are sometimes dirty is a weakness in building wide social support for unions. One significant way in which unions could work to correct this misperception is by investing more energy and resources into building coalitions as well as investing in their public image. Unions could work more closely with Nepal’s media and non-governmental organizations.
There is also a need to reorganize union structures. Formal industries may be best organized as they are currently, at the enterprise level, the sector level, and rolling up into a national federation. However, informal workers might be better supported if unions organize geographically, following the federal administrative units such as ward, municipality, and province.
In addition to organizing and advocacy, unions may need to incorporate capacity building as a core service they provide to their members. A theme that emerged during the research, particularly from younger and non-traditional workers, is the need to provide more thorough support in developing professional skills and capacity of workers. In the modern Nepali economy, especially the emerging digital economy, unions need to understand upskilling workers as a fundamental power strategy.
Rajib: Trade unions in Nepal have long been associated with the democracy movement. But most contemporary literature has tended to survey employers, employer organizations, union leaders, government officials, and middle managers – in short, almost every stakeholder except workers themselves. While we understand that it is challenging to conduct studies, at scale, of worker sentiments, this also seems like a critically necessary endeavour: both by union-based researchers, who would hold these relationships through their positions in trade unions, and other scholars or other analysts. Failure to do so has upheld the dominant perspective, also held by senior trade unionists, that sees industrial peace as a valuable goal for trade unions, necessary for national economic development. This research focused on more on-the-ground information about how the unions have functioned, their relationships to political parties, and decision-making tendencies with a focus on workers’ perspectives that barely feature in previous literatures. This approach has allowed for additional conversations with workers, trade union leaders and labour movement analysts to reach a better understanding of the current situation. It will be very helpful for trade unions and their supporters to intensify their discussions on how to strengthen the movement in the future.
Rajib Timalsina is assistant professor of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies at Tribhuvan University. He is a governing council member (2018-2023) at the International Peace Research Association and has been involved in labour- and trade union-related research since 2014.
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