Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Look, listen and learn


The recent labour union attacks on Kantipur Publication have shown that dealing effectively with unions is now a must-have skill for leaders of the Nepali business community. There are three interlocking reasons why the activities of labour unions have intensified, and there are three ways to mitigate risks posed by protesting employees.

Population: Watch any labour rally in Kathmandu. What you'll notice is that most participants are barely out of their teens. Almost all grew up outside Kathmandu, where they were repeatedly told that a for-profit business exists not to create jobs and increase everyone's wealth but to do only one thing: exploit many poor people like themselves to enrich a few \'enemies of the people'. When young people, lulled into this sort of one-sided world view enter the workforce, those who hate private-sector businesses can be sure of always having a supportive audience.

Payment: One dirty secret of most for-profit Nepali-owned businesses is that non-family employees are paid poorly and irregularly. On the firm's side, this problem usually stems from bad management, made worse by owners who see little incentive to invest in employees' career growth. On the employee's side, given how prices of household items have gone up, sustaining even a lower-middle class lifestyle in Kathmandu for a family of four with children in school, requires a monthly income of at least Rs 20,000. That is far above what most desk-and-chair jobs pay. Meanwhile, the business landscape is neither competitive nor dynamic enough for most workers to leave one job easily for another.

Program: When this anti-business mindset of most employees rubs against the indifference-to-employees attitude of most business owners, there is friction. It's that friction which, in blood-boiling words, political ideologues dress up with specious metaphors of epic class struggles. The result is that except for the ideologues, everyone loses. Products and services do not get sold. Jobs become insecure. Morale plummets, and relations are strained, perhaps irreversibly. So what can be done in times ahead?

Acceptance: Instead of denying the sheer reality of Nepal's youth-led demographics, business leaders need to accept that young people entering the manufacturing workforce today grew up in a completely different Nepal from the one they grew up in. Because of both the absence and the weakness of relevant institutions, the only way most of these workers have ever gotten anything that they consider to be \'legitimately theirs' is by violence, bandas and mob justice. How surprising is it really that most workers feel justified in trashing their own workplaces to get what they want?

Alliances: The business community's response so far has been defensively ad hoc. An industrialist gets beaten up, and there is a protest march for a day. Likewise, a private-sector media house gets vandalized, and there is another protest march. Marches are all right, but it's time to start creating long-term alliances among all large and small businesses. Such alliances should spread the word about how businesses have created jobs, added value and helped ordinary employees help themselves. Besides, such alliances provide political strength when dealing directly with ideologues whose only agenda is to whip up a frenzy of class warfare.

Arbitration: Business leaders should understand that because of unaddressed employee grievances, the conditions have long been ripe for any outsider to exploit. As such, they should not act surprised and feel hurt. Instead, they should take this opportunity to start creating formal and informal mechanisms within their organisations and trade groups to address employee grievances directly and promptly.

While these may not fully address the problem, being solution-oriented is a wiser move at this time than going head to head with mobs of teenagers who remain fodder for Maoist ideologues.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)