All the major trade unions, federations, labour support organisations from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal who gathered for´ the first time in Kathmandu in end-May agreed on one thing—there must be a South Asian Charter of Labour Rights.
In the past several years, diplomats, writers, artists, scientists, social activists, lawyers and development-wallas have had their South Asian meets. So why should labour unions stay aloof from this very positive trend towards regional understanding and cooperation?
The South Asian Consultation on Labour Rights in Kathmandu was the culmination of work begun in early 1995, when the major trade unions and support groups from India and representatives from neighbouring countries met to discuss the proposal to introduce a social clause (on labour and environmental standards in international trade) as part of the World Trade Organisation.
The meeting overwhelmingly rejected the inclusion of the clause because it felt it would be used by the industrialised countries to deny South Asian goods access to their markets. But, at the same time, they decided to seek alternatives to help improve the labour rights situation in the Subcontinent.
The 35 labour organisations represented in Kathmandu agreed upon the principles to govern the formulation of the South Asian Charter of Labour Rights, whose goal would be “to establish basic labour rights in all South Asian countries, bringing all labour laws in conformity with the relevant UN and ILO Conventions and Declarations and their harmomsation into an enabling South Asian Labour Code.”
That was not all. As J. John, the spokesman for Consultation, stated, “The South Asian labour organisations also demand the establishment of a SAARC code of conduct for transnational corporations; establishment of an institutional mechanism which provides a SAARC work permit which would protect the rights of workers; establishment of a mechanism to protect working people in border areas of South Asian countries from detention and atrocities; labour rights commissions in all South Asian countries to monitor the labour rights and implementation of laws, and a regional commission at the SAARC level.”
Secretary General of SAARC, Naeem Uddin Hasan, responded positively to the initiative, saying that the coming together of the labour representatives was significant. Pointing out that the 11 areas of cooperation identified by SAARC (agriculture, communications, health, population, etc) did not include labour, he said, “We would consider proposing the inclusion of labour as one of the areas of cooperation in the next SAARC official meeting.” He also suggested that the united labour body seek the status of a “SAARC Regional Apex Body” to facilitate long-term regional cooperation.
There was no mere token presence at the Kathmandu conference. It boasted some of the most powerful labour organisations from all over the subcontinent, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, All India Trade Union Congress, Hind Majdoor Sabha of India, Pakistan Trade Union Federation, All Pakistan Trade Union Organisation, Railway Worker´s Union of Pakistan, Bangladesh Garments Workers & Employees Federation, National Workers Federation of Bangladesh, Public Sector Trade Union Federation, United Federation of Labour, Sri Lanka, and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions.
All these organisations will be busy in the coming three months, organising national conferences for a thorough discussion on the proposed Charter. The final formulation and subsequent adoption of the document will come up in the next consultation to be held in three months´ time.
The resolution adopted in Kathmandu states that, for all of South Asia´s social ills, the situation is even more grave for workers. Not more than 10 percent of South Asia´s workers are unionised, and a large portion of the rest are in the informal sector where they are denied basic labour rights.
Globalisation and structural adjustment programmes are resulting in increased unemployment and a drastic deterioration in living and working conditions for labour. “The disturbing fact is that the process of informalisation in the industrial sector is increasing,” said the resolution.
Muchkund Dubey, India´s former Foreign Secretary and who is closely associated with the formulation of the Labour Charter, said that there was a need for “genuine regional solidarity” among the trade unions so as to articulate their interests in a coordinated manner. This was because the international economic system was under going a process of reorganisation on the basis of economic regions, “so much so that transnational capital is initiating investment and managerial policies and programmes in terms of regions.”
There were other, even more pressing matters that were raised by the labour representatives, and activism in terms of fish-workers seemed to indicate the shape of things to come in the labour movement in South Asia. Muhammad Junaid Awan of Pakistan´s Worker´s Confederation, Thomas Kocherry of India´s National Fishworker´s Forum, and N. Saranapala De Silva of the United Federation of Labour (Sri Lanka) had common questions: Why, for the last two years, were 191 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and 21 Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails? Why did Indian coastguards continuously harass Sri Lankan fishermen, and why did Bangladesh regularly arrest Indian fishermen and confiscate their boats?
For the first time, South Asian labour organisations have jointly demanded the cancellation of all the licences given to foreign industrial fleets in Indian deep seas. This has depleted the fish resources in the Indian Ocean and caused endless havoc to the livelihood of fisher folks among South Asia´s coastal communities.
A letter to the Indian Prime Minister demanded that the Indian Ocean be saved from destructive fishing practices. Failure of the government to act would result in united action by South Asian trade unions against the Indian deep sea fishing policy. That would be the start of regional trade unionism.