Building stronger unions across South Asia

Nicholas McCallum

Working with our union brothers and sisters to build solidarity throughout the Subcontinent. 

By ETU Assistant National Secretary David Mier.

I’ve been in New Delhi, India, attending the BWI Asia-Pacific Electricity Workers Network where.

This was the inaugural regional meeting for our comrades in this sector, resulting from a motion moved by ETU National Secretary Allen Hicks in 2017 at the 4th BWI Congress held in Durban, South Africa.

At the inaugural Asia Pacific Regional Electrical Workers Network in Delhi, there were 15 trade unions present, mostly from India, but also from Sweden, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia as well.

It’s was an eye-opener being in New Delhi, a city with a population equivalent to about 80 per cent of Australia’s entire population - and, like India, it’s growing.

Safety is a premium for too many of our comrades in Indian.

Delhi is also one of the smoggiest, most heavily polluted cities in the world. In fact India is home to nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. 

At the conference I delivered a speech on the opportunities we have in Australia and in developing nations take back our power and pursue clean, green energy that’s publicly owned and community run, telling our comrades this is what we need, and it’s what our children demand.

I also attended a mass meeting of the Delhi State Electricity Workers Union about a future EBA and alleged corruption by the company.

We flew to Bhubaneswar in Odisha State in India’s east and met with the office Bearers of Nikhila Orissa Bidyut Sramik Mobasangha (NOBSM) who represent 20,000 workers in the electrical distribution sector including many contract workers.

There are 150 contractors that work on the network in Odisha. Their problems  are familiar:

  • Their salary is not paid on time
  • Sometimes they wait 3-4 months
  • Workers compensation not paid
  • The contractor does not deduct ESI – a social security insurance
  • Does not contribute to the Employee Provident Fund
  • Does not supply PPE

These are breaches of their contract, but letters written to the Energy Department go unanswered and there is no policing of the contracts to ensure compliance. I witnessed workers in thongs and bare feet!

Examples of what privatisation has done to safety, workforce numbers and conditions where outlined and the experience is similar to ours in the downsizing, but safety of the workforce has paid a premium.

In Rajasthan state, the President of Rajasthan Vidhyut Kamgar Union told of how if one contractor was working near the sea and a worker was killed, that worker would be disposed off in the sea with no effort made to contact the family, have an inquiry into the death or counsel fellow workers.

There is no statutory body that keeps track of the number of deaths in the electrical sector but in Odisha state it is believed to be in excess of 200 every year with many more injured.

At this year’s conference I met with Dipendra Basnet, the treasurer of CAWUN (Construction & Allied Workers Union) of Nepal and Diwakar Pokhrel, an electrician from CUPPEC (Central Union of Painters, Plumbers and Electrical Construction Workers).

In 1996, Dipendra and his father travelled the 180km from his village to Kathmandu to look for work. After working as a labourer for a short while he was able gain employment to train as an electrician.

As we are aware even in Australia, the nature of construction electrical work means that employment is not constant.

This created a problem for Dipendra, as he needed somewhere to store his tools, so he and 10 others decided to hire a room for this purpose.

Not long after, they realised they needed a bigger room as their group had grown to about 30.

They soon started talking about the conditions of work in their industry and decided to form a union.

That was 20 years ago and the CAWUN now has around 45,000 members, of which 13,000 are electrical workers.

Because of the small membership dues charged, Dipendra still works as a construction electrician. As you would imagine, this has not been easy working the two roles.

When a lack of work forced him to return to his village, there were times when Maoist rebels threatened to torture or kill people who did not join them.

There would be nights when his house would be overrun with rebels demanding food and provisions. If he was unable to provide any, assaults and torture would follow, and goods were forcibly taken.

One of the purposes of CAWUN is to ensure decent work for its members and try to ensure job and social security.

Dipendra sees this as his main priority as a unionist and the ETU stands with him and his comrades in solidarity as they continue their struggle for better pay and conditions and safer industries in their homelands.


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