Nepali Times
Unions, government lock horns.

Even in a country where lockouts and strikes are a regular feature, the ongoing shutdown by the public enterprises has made everyone sit up and notice. This is because it has succeeded in inconveniencing people.

Striking employees of Nepal Rastra Bank forced shut the gates and hounded anyone entering the bank premises. At the Agricultural Development Bank, the strikers squatted at the entrance. You could walk into the Rastriya Banijya Bank some distance away but only to be questioned at every step.

That people were not able to withdraw money for the Janai Purnima and Gai Jatra festivals did not seem to bother the strikers. And neither were their counterparts at the Nepal Electricity Authority and Nepal Telecommunications Corporation concerned that people were making futile trips daily to pay their bills.

The organisations on strike together employ over 70,000 people, of whom about 55,000 are organised. The battle-lines were drawn after the government ordered all PEs to adjust the take-home pay packets of employees to bring it at par with the salary of government servants.

The basic salaries in both services are the same, but there is a great difference in allowances. Let\'s take the example of peons. Until the beginning of this fiscal year, government peons received Rs 2,000 as basic salary and an allowance of Rs 300. Their counterparts in NRB got the same Rs 2,000 but their allowance was Rs 3,500.

According to the new pay structure, government peons now receive a flat Rs 3,000. The government wants to implement the same pay in PEs also, but by adjusting it against the hefty allowances that are currently paid. In the case of NRB peons, their basic salary would now be Rs. 3,000 with allowances reduced to Rs 2500. In effect that would mean PE workers would take home no less that what they did before the changes.

No way, say the strikers. They demand that allowances be maintained at previous levels and also be given the salary hike.

The government may have done right by sticking to its guns because except for the NRB and monopolies like the Nepal Oil Corporation, no other PE can afford to meet the demand. But rather than making clear its position, it responded by pretending it did not know of the strikes.

It does have the option of invoking the "essential services" laws and banning union activity. This move is possible if the talks between the managements and unions don\'t lead toward a solution.

Given the antagonism among the various unions, a resolution is not likely anytime soon. When the unions are not fighting the management they are busy politicking against each other. The pro-UML union does not want the authorities to even talk with that affiliated to the ML, while both dismiss the "Congress" union to be too close to the government to negotiate on behalf of workers.

On 11 August the government ordered the managements to negotiate with the unions. But by the 13th, the unions were already tiring of the talks saying that the government\'s pay adjustment plan was unacceptable.

Besides the pay scheme, the unions are also fighting the government\'s order that temporary workers be fired and contractual employees be hired, if needed. The unions also oppose privatisation even as they dont want government interference.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)