ILO wants to help Nepal create jobs, says Howard
Dr Richard Howard has been Country Director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Nepal since August 2016. With his 20-year-long management and research experience in Asia and the Pacific in the private sector, non-government organisations and the ILO, he has developed expertise in gender equality and non-discrimination, migration, indigenous peoples, sexual and reproductive health, and HIV and AIDS. Prior to his appointment in Nepal, he had worked in the ILO as Senior Regional Specialist on HIV and Decent Work for Marginalised Groups in Bangkok, and in China and Indonesia in other capacities. An American national, Howard holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in Anthropology from the University of Illinois.
Dr Howard talked to Ritu Raj Subedi of The Rising Nepal on various labour issues in the wake of the recent ILO Conference in Geneva, which was also addressed by Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. “The themes and issues discussed and adopted by the ILO Summit are quite relevant to Nepal,” he says. Excerpts.
Would you briefly highlight the outcomes of the 106th International Labour Conference that concluded in Geneva recently?
We all know that broad policies of the ILO are set by the International Labour Conference (ILC), which meets once a year in June, in Geneva, Switzerland. The Conference brings together representatives of government, workers and employers from the ILO member states. Often called an international parliament of labour, the Conference establishes and adopts international labour standards and is a forum for discussion of key social and labour questions. It also adopts the Organisation's budget and elects the Governing Body.
This time the overarching theme was the environment. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 have really brought environment into the central place of development efforts so that every aspect of development, whether it is economic or social, should take into account the impact on environment. For example, economic activities, like production and industry clearly have an impact on the environment, so for the ILO, we ask how much we have helped to make the industries environmentally sustainable. We are almost over the past 100 years of work, and we have done a lot of work on labour rights and are addressing the worst forms of labour violations - child labour, trafficking and forced labour. We’ve made some progress on these fronts, but we need to do more on the environmental impact. This was the first message from the Conference.
The second important message was on migration - very relevant for Nepal. In 2018, there will be a UN Global Compact where all the UN member states will get together and make a commitment on what we can do for a safer and fairer migration. The ILO convened a special committee on migration to examine the issues where ILO can do more. One of the key issues, which is very important for Nepal, is fair recruitment. Migrant workers all over the world face a lot of exploitation even before they leave the country. There are high costs, like paying high visa fees, recruitment fees, transport fees and training fees. Many times, workers who leave Nepal as migrant workers in Malaysia, Qatar or any other GCC country pay more than their year’s salary before they make any money home. The ILO is trying to establish a new system where migrant workers pay nothing. All costs should be taken care of by the employers or their institutions. This is a very controversial thing in Nepal because the recruitment industry is one of the biggest profit-making sectors, so there is a lot of resistance to fair recruitment. The discussion was very much around ILO’s member states that they vouch for fair recruitment.
What were some other key themes discussed at the International Labour Conference and their relevance to Nepal?
The Nepali delegation, especially from the workers organisations, was active in discussions on migration. The implementation of labour standards is very relevant to Nepal, as to any other country. Jobs have to be created not only to recover from situations of conflict or war but also to prevent future conflicts. That discussion was very relevant because Nepal is going through constitutional reforms and elections, but above all, it has the challenge of creating jobs for Nepali people at home. There was also a recognition that fair recruitment alone does not solve migration problems and to ensure that workplaces are in compliance with International Labour Standards in countries that employ migrant workers in the formal economy as well as the informal economy, like domestic workers. The focus was more on what we can really do to improve working conditions in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Malaysia.
We also need to address the data gap on migration flows from countries. We need to know what’s happening so that we can better channel people to higher skilled, better paying jobs. One of the problems for Nepal is that many in the migration labour are in the lower segment of employment with low pay and low skills whereas other countries, even Sri Lanka, are gaining higher opportunities for their migrant workers, but we are in the lower bracket. I think it’s also partly because of the lack of understanding of what the labour migrant trends and where employment opportunities are in the receiving countries. So we need better data not only on who is going but also on what are the employment opportunities in the receiving countries so that we can better link migrant workers with certain skills for better opportunities. This allows us to better understand the opportunities available to address the skill-mismatch because a lot of trainings are conducted for the migrant workers, but whether they meet their demand and enable the workers to get higher paid jobs is the issue.
There was also discussion around ensuring greater voice for the workers in the receiving countries so that workers’ organisations can participate in the cross-border engagements to seek collective bargaining at the global level. It’s a situation that workers cannot get organised in several countries, and discussion on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work is something that the ILO has also to push further. Nepal has ratified seven of the eight fundamental conventions, and the ILO feels that it is important that Nepal ratify the Convention on Freedom of Association. And with the President visiting Geneva, this was also discussed there.
Nepal has been elected a deputy member of the ILO Governing Board. What does this mean for the country?
This is a prestigious matter for the country. Nepal has been through a lot as a country and now the people are coming out to show that they are ready to play a leadership role. The President attending the ILC was also a testament to this. As the deputy member of the ILO Governing body, Nepal will provide and help shape the direction of the ILO.
Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari addressed this year’s World of Work Summit. How relevant is this for Nepal?
The conference was very relevant to Nepal, especially to understand how global warming is affecting livelihoods and the environmental impact on the issues, like migration, trafficking and child labour. Environmental changes force people into dangerous situations. In terms of environmental production/green production too, there are more opportunities that can be tapped into.
Another relevant discussion was the revision of the Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205). This labour standard is very important for Nepal. The third issue that is relevant for Nepal and is also the next big challenge is the creation of good jobs for Nepali workers at home, which was discussed at the conference.
How does the ILO evaluate Nepal when it comes to abiding by the core labour principles as enshrined in the ILO charter?
There is good compliance of the labour principles at the structural level. The trade unions work freely, openly and effectively. They do represent workers. Our trade unions are the best in the region - they are sophisticated and smart and get on well. They see issues well beyond the wages and working hours. They are concerned about job creation, growth, development and overall well-being of the workers. The ILO built that. The employers’ organisations are also more developed. And if you look at laws and policies, you see that they are also aligned with ILO’s core labour standards. However our challenge is the implementation at the factory level. We need to ensure that we have monitoring mechanisms for compliance.
The informal economy is overwhelmingly high in Nepal compared to the formal economy, and this excludes a huge working population from the benefits of the formal economy. How do you view the situation?
More than 90% of the people in Nepal are in the informal economy, including those in the agriculture sector. The new Labour Act and the Social Security Act, which we believe, will be passed by parliament in the near future, encompass all enterprises, all economic activities. But there lie challenges in their implementation.
We need to create incentives for small informal companies to formalise. Why would enterprises want to get their companies formalised, get registered and pay taxes if they can function out of the system? The incentives to formalise work can include access to credit, incentives for registration, training and capacity building and access to social security. If there are incentives for the company to formalise, then they can comply with the labour laws. It may take a long time for the informal economy to get formalized, and for this to happen, you need strong economic growth to drive that process. It is a kind of circular development process where you need the growth to benefit the formalisation and formalisation to benefit the growth. Trade unions can play a part in helping ensure formalisation of work so that we can also formalise the industry.
Marred by the decade-long conflict and prolonged transition, Nepal is unable to achieve economic growth and development. Can Nepal live up to the all labour standards with its precarious and dependent economy? Is the ILO satisfied?
The ILO is here to help and assist Nepal where there is a need and not just to assess labour standards. We realise that there are big challenges, such as the lack of jobs and unstable government, but we are here to help.
Moving forward, Nepal will need to have a vision for economic growth and also seek ways to implement laws and policies.
How is the ILO working with the Government of Nepal to ensure more green jobs and more work for women and youth in the country?
The ILO is exploring opportunities on the issue of creating green jobs. We recognise that there is more work to be done here. It is not only important that decent jobs are created but that more green jobs are available for the people, including women and youths who are so keen to improve their situation. Much of the progress for Nepal hinges on how quickly and smartly decent jobs are created at home for its people.