Nepali Times
Shoot-yourself-in-the-foot unionism



Sudeep Risal is the kind of guy who works hard six months of the year and lives one day at a time. Originally from Sindhupalchok, Risal has been a trekking guide for 13 years.

During the peak trekking seasons of March-May and September-November, Risal makes between Rs 550-700 a day leading groups through trails around the country, excluding tips and gifts.

While he finds the basic pay satisfactory, Risal feels it is the clients he makes friends with and their generosity that makes his vocation special - one of his two sons is currently in school, sponsored by a Swiss tourist Risal met on a trek.

Stories like Risal's are in danger of becoming tales of the past, given the labour unions' heavy-handed approach in demanding more pay and benefits for their members. Just last Sunday, the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Tourism Workers Union (ANTWU) called for trekking agencies to stop sending out guides, porters, cooks and helpers until the Travel and Trekking Regulations are implemented. The guidelines stipulate an average two-fold increase in wages and insurance coverage among other conditions.

The move could not have come at a worse time. A strike in the middle of trekking season places great pressure on trekking agencies to accede to ANTWU's demands. But it is the workers themselves who will bear the brunt in lost wages, which make up a large portion of their annual income.

While unions such as ANTWU have worked to improve the lot of tourism workers through the years, "what they are presently asking for is unrealistic", says Som Thapa, First Vice President of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal (TAAN). "Trekking companies will have to charge customers much more in response."

Padam Ghale, founder of Mandala and Shambhala trekking agencies, which employ more than 300 staff during peak periods, concurs. "Times have changed. Thirty years ago, we only received 30 rupees a day," he says, adding, "these big unions are usually associated with political parties. When they fight for their members, they create goodwill among them and build political pressure at the same time. Until there is political stability in Nepal this will not change."

Labour unions seem to be in an apparent win-win position, and are clear on the need to implement the trekking regulations agreed on by the unions and TAAN last year. In fact, Khagendra Kafle, central committee member of ANTWU, claims the regulations should have been implemented by December, and says they began an awareness campaign ahead of the trekking season. "We are ready to negotiate, but are going to push this through, definitely. We will send back tourists if we need to." Fellow unions, such as the Trade Union Congress, agree on the principle of ANTWU's stir, though not the methods and timing. Vice-President Rewati Adhikari says, "The demands are fair and we support them."

But ANTWU is also betting on the unwillingness of tourism business owners to hold out for too long before losses start to eat away at their bottom line. In their push to gain more political clout, what the unions are forgetting, are the very people they represent. They might be able to get away with playing their members like chips in a casino in the short run, but they could face a backlash in the event of a prolonged strike. Ideology and camaraderie cannot feed a hungry man.

For a country that depends heavily on tourism, worth about 25 billion rupees last year, things like this happen far too frequently, especially given the industry's recent recovery from the decade-long civil war. The Nepal Tourism Year 2011 initiative aims to bring in a million tourists, but that appears a little far-fetched at the moment. If the country and the tourism industry cannot get their own house in order and provide the necessary support and services, tourists will be hard-pressed to include Nepal on their itineraries. No one will be a winner then.

Pressing concerns - FROM ISSUE #494 (19 MARCH 2010 - 25 MARCH 2010)
Outgoing tourists - FROM ISSUE #494 (19 MARCH 2010 - 25 MARCH 2010)
Borrrring! - FROM ISSUE #494 (19 MARCH 2010 - 25 MARCH 2010)

1. Arthur
What a hypocritical article. Wages in Nepal are among the lowest in the world and an insignificant part of the costs paid by tourists from countries where wages are much higher. Instead of learning how to run businesses as efficiently as in other countries, these "entrepreneurs" waste their time complaining against having to comply with the minimum conditions set by regulations!

It would make more sense for the unions to take over running the industry and pay any managers they need a fair salary for whatever skills they do need from them. Managers who waste their time writing articles complaining against the people who actually do the all the work obviously have no useful skills and should look for some other occupation.

2. Sud
Nepal is one of the cheapest places on Earth to travel. I don't think the tourists would mind spending an extra dollar so that the porters and cooks that they travel along can also have a good life. A dollar spend in Nepal is more worth than a dollar spent traveling elsewhere like Singapore.

3. ErWin
Salaries should be reasonable, but doubling is disproportional. The skills required as guide are very often minimal, English is a must, bt other than that many guides are not providing added value services but guiding the way whereas tourists are well able to find their way on the main treks. I know of very few countries were trekking with a guide is so common as in Nepal, this may not last for long when prices are going up.  
Another thing Nepal should realize is that it is loosing it's charm more and more due to pollution (capital and all city areas), poor wast management and destruction of cultural sites. I used to live in Nepal and I trekked (with a guide mostly) in many different places, but everywhere Nepali citizens are dumping their plastic food packages as garbage just on the treks. Keep Nepal clean and make it attractive than tourists are willing to provide higher prices and can Nepal face the competition. As the writer is mentioning there are many places that can compete very will with Nepal and are often cheaper with more service.   

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)