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History and Role of Nepali Trade Unions

Article 14 Feb 2023 1215 0

Trade Unions

Trade unions, also known as labor unions, have a rich history in Nepal. Their origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when workers in the jute mills of Biratnagar formed the first labor union in the country. Since then, Nepali trade unions have played a significant role in protecting and promoting the interests of workers, advocating for their rights, and improving their working conditions. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the history and role of Nepali trade unions, including their origins, development, and major milestones, as well as the challenges and opportunities they face in the 21st century.

Origins and Evolution of Trade Unions in Nepal

Nepal's labor movement has a long and complex history, shaped by a variety of social, economic, and political factors. The country's feudal past, combined with its transition to a democratic republic, has influenced the development of Nepali trade unions. Early trade unions in Nepal were often organized along ethnic or occupational lines, and their activities were largely focused on collective bargaining and improving wages and working conditions for their members. Over time, trade unions in Nepal have become more sophisticated, and their goals have expanded to include broader issues of social justice and workers' rights.

One of the most significant milestones in the evolution of Nepali trade unions was the establishment of the Nepal Trade Union Congress (NTUC) in 1949. The NTUC was the first national-level trade union federation in Nepal and played a key role in organizing workers across various sectors. Since then, numerous other trade union federations and organizations have emerged, representing workers in different industries and regions.

Roles and Functions of Nepali Trade Unions

The primary role of Nepali trade unions is to protect and promote the interests of workers. This involves a range of activities, including collective bargaining, advocacy, and legal action. Nepali trade unions negotiate with employers on behalf of their members to improve wages, working conditions, and benefits. They also engage in political advocacy to influence government policy and promote workers' rights.

In addition, Nepali trade unions are active in promoting social justice and working to improve the lives of marginalized groups. They have been at the forefront of campaigns to eliminate child labor, combat gender-based violence, and address discrimination against ethnic minorities and marginalized communities.

Challenges Facing Nepali Trade Unions in the 21st Century

Despite their important role in Nepali society, trade unions in Nepal face a range of challenges. One of the most significant challenges is low membership. According to a recent survey, only about 10% of Nepali workers belong to a trade union (Gurung, 2020). This low level of unionization limits the bargaining power and political influence of trade unions.

Another major challenge facing Nepali trade unions is fragmentation. There are numerous trade union federations and organizations in Nepal, each with their own agenda and priorities. This fragmentation can make it difficult for trade unions to present a united front and achieve their goals.

Finally, Nepali trade unions face limited influence in policy-making. Despite their efforts to influence government policy, trade unions in Nepal have limited access to decision-makers and are often excluded from policy-making processes.

Case Studies and Examples of Successful Trade Union Initiatives and Campaigns in Nepal

Despite the challenges they face, Nepali trade unions have achieved some notable successes in recent years. One example is the struggle of tea estate workers in eastern Nepal to secure better wages and working conditions. Led by the Nepal Tea Garden Workers' Union, this campaign resulted in a significant increase in wages for tea workers (Khanal, 2019).

Another example is the role of Nepali trade unions in advocating for the rights of migrant workers from Nepal. The International Trade Union Confederation's (ITUC) Decent Work for Migrant Workers project aims to ensure that migrant workers are not subject to exploitation, abuse, or discrimination and that they have access to decent working conditions and social protections.

The ITUC project works closely with Nepali trade unions and civil society organizations to provide training, education, and advocacy support to migrant workers, as well as to campaign for policy changes that benefit them. The project has helped to raise awareness of the challenges facing Nepali migrant workers and to strengthen their capacity to organize and negotiate with employers.

However, despite the successes of some trade unions and initiatives, the labor movement in Nepal faces significant challenges. One of the most pressing is the low level of union membership, which is estimated to be only around 6% of the total workforce (Nepal Federation of Trade Unions, 2017). This is partly due to the dominance of the informal sector in Nepal's economy, which makes it difficult for unions to organize and represent workers.

Another challenge is the fragmentation of the trade union movement, with numerous unions operating independently of each other and competing for members and influence. This fragmentation weakens the bargaining power and political clout of Nepali trade unions, as they struggle to present a united front and speak with a common voice.

In addition, Nepali trade unions face limitations in their ability to influence policy-making and to hold employers accountable for labor violations. This is partly due to the weak enforcement of labor laws and regulations in Nepal, which leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It is also due to the limited representation of workers in key decision-making bodies, such as tripartite committees and the National Labor Commission.

Despite these challenges, Nepali trade unions have made important contributions to the struggle for workers' rights and social justice in the country. They have played a crucial role in advocating for better wages, working conditions, and benefits for workers in a range of sectors, from agriculture and manufacturing to transport and services. They have also been active in campaigns against child labor, gender-based violence, and discrimination, and have supported initiatives to promote sustainable development and environmental protection.

One of the most significant achievements of the Nepali labor movement in recent years has been the adoption of the Labor Act 2017, which replaced the outdated Labor Act 1992 and introduced a number of progressive provisions for workers' rights and welfare. The new law includes provisions for collective bargaining, grievance redressal, and occupational health and safety, as well as safeguards against forced labor, child labor, and discrimination.

Overall, the history and role of Nepali trade unions reflect the complex and evolving nature of labor relations and workers' struggles in the country. While trade unions in Nepal face a range of challenges, they remain an important force for social change and a vital platform for workers to voice their concerns and aspirations. As the country faces new challenges in the 21st century, including the impact of globalization and technological change, the labor movement will need to adapt and innovate to continue its fight for workers' rights and social justice.

Latest trends and developments in Nepali trade unionism, including the impact of globalization and technological change

In recent years, Nepali trade unionism has been shaped by several trends and developments, including the impact of globalization and technological change. The following are some of the key trends and developments that are currently shaping the labor movement in Nepal:

  • Globalization: As Nepal becomes increasingly integrated into the global economy, the country's labor market is becoming more competitive, and workers are facing increased pressure to work longer hours for lower wages. This has led to the growth of informal employment and the erosion of labor standards. In response, Nepali trade unions have been calling for the implementation of international labor standards and the regulation of multinational corporations operating in Nepal.
  • Technological change: The rapid pace of technological change is transforming the nature of work in Nepal, with many traditional jobs being replaced by automation and digital technologies. This is particularly true in the manufacturing and service sectors, which are key employers in the country. To adapt to these changes, Nepali trade unions have been advocating for retraining and upskilling programs for workers, as well as the introduction of new labor standards to protect workers in the digital economy.
  • Political instability: Nepal has been beset by political instability in recent years, with frequent changes in government and ongoing conflict between different political factions. This has created a challenging environment for trade unions, which must navigate a complex political landscape in order to advocate for workers' rights.
  • Environmental issues: Nepal is one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world, with a wealth of natural resources, including forests, rivers, and wildlife. However, the country is also facing a range of environmental challenges, including deforestation, pollution, and climate change. Nepali trade unions have been calling for the integration of environmental concerns into labor policy, as well as the creation of green jobs and the promotion of sustainable development.
  • Changing demographics: Nepal's population is changing rapidly, with a growing number of young people entering the labor market, and an increasing number of women and marginalized groups seeking greater representation and empowerment. Nepali trade unions have been working to address these demographic shifts, through the promotion of gender equality, youth employment programs, and initiatives to support the rights of marginalized groups.


In conclusion, Nepali trade unions have a rich history and a vital role to play in promoting workers' rights and welfare in Nepal. While the labor movement faces many challenges in the 21st century, including low membership and limited influence in policy-making, there are also many opportunities for innovation and progress. By embracing the latest trends and developments, such as the impact of globalization and technological change, Nepali trade unions can continue to play a key role in shaping the country's labor market and promoting social justice for all workers.

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