Nepali Times
Strictly Business
The politics of labour


Last November, shortly after joining Himalmedia, one of my tasks was to start the negotiation process with the staff union. It had been registered a few months earlier and had submitted a list of 17 demands to the management.

In the first meeting, union representatives made it clear that theirs was a non-partisan trade union. Their aim was to put pressure on the management to address staff concerns. Though most demands were sensible, I told them that some demands were difficult to fulfill without first improving the health of the company.

I asked them to help me put the company in a sturdier financial footing. Over the next seven months, several formal and informal negotiations - some lasting for six hours at a stretch, and dragging into midnight - took place as we discussed the pros and the cons of each difficult demand.

In June, while making plans for the fiscal year, it became clear that a tradeoff was necessary between achieving the profitability goal and signing a realistic agreement with the union. That tradeoff was to reduce staff in all departments.

Fortunately, once the management made its case to the staff by sharing all the relevant details through numerous back and forth conversations, 34 staff submitted written resignations over a three-month period. The union's cooperation was valuable to make sure that not a single day was wasted. And contrary to what was reported in tabloids, the staff saw that the company not only provided appropriate severance packages but also assisted with job search.

This process of peaceful layoff was not to the liking of some union members. In September, they left the existing union to create another one by seeking help from the political party that now leads the government. Around that time, the company announced that it would stop running its subscription sales unit from December, and look for a cost-effective alternative.

Some subscription sales staff believed that the company's announcement was aimed at thwarting their union-forming plans, when, in reality, it was a further move along the cost-cutting path. Over a series of meetings, the management patiently explained the company's situation, offered job-search assistance, severance packages that were higher than legal minimums, and additional three months' pay. 10 of the staff happily left with reference letters, but 16 subscription sales staff refused.

Asked why, they said that they were in the process of registering their new union at the Labour Office. The management said that it had no objection to their registering a new union. But it reminded them that such a registration would be valid only with verifiably true support of at least one-fourth of the current staff - 85 per cent of whom are with the existing union with which the management signed an agreement.

This has put the sales staff in a quandary. Their union formation plans do not have adequate support from the current staff. By all accounts, the political party they have become close to wants to have its presence at Himalmedia. Meantime, the company has had to deal with physical attacks, death threats against staff and arson.

ince options for straightforward legal registration of the new union are closed, there is one possibility: In days ahead, those close to the centres of power may put political pressure on the Labour Office to offer a certificate of recognition to this new union anyway, even if that means circumventing the law. We will be watching what happens next.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)