Less than two days after the powerful earthquake and subsequent aftershocks that hit Nepal, leaving at least 3,700 people dead and thousands more injured, Equal Times spoke with Bishnu Rimal, President of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).
How is the situation on the ground in Nepal?
The capital Kathmandu is devastated. Many buildings, temples and World Heritage sites have collapsed. We are still pulling people out of the rubble.
Many neighbourhoods have no more electricity. There is a lack of food. Thousands of people are living in the streets and on public places – in tents or with just a few blankets.
We are very worried about the situation in the villages of Nepal. Some of them are hard to reach and we fear that the death toll could be much higher, especially because most of the population in these remote areas is made of elderly people, women and children.
It is a consequence of the lack of jobs here and the use of Nepali workforce for construction projects abroad, especially in the Middle East.*
[*Editor’s note: In a letter to the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called for an emergency suspension of the kafala sponsorship system to allow Nepalese migrant workers to return home. Under this system, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese migrant workers in the Gulf can only leave the country if their employer grants them authorisation.]
What are the most urgent issues to tackle at the moment?
Rescue workers are working around the clock and foreign help is starting to arrive. We need to continue searching for survivors and helping the ones staying outside by providing food, medication and any other kind of relief.
Fortunately, the earthquake hit on a Saturday, which was a public holiday. If it had happened during the week, a lot more people would have died in the office buildings and workplaces that were damaged.
What is the labour movement of Nepal doing to help?
We are asking all our affiliates to encourage their members to donate blood and to help the people affected by any way they can. We need to mobilise as many volunteers as possible.
We have also decided not to celebrate May Day this year. Instead we will mourn and pray together for those who died and those who are injured.
Finally, we are pushing the government to increase the search and rescue efforts and to provide help to the people who have lost everything.
What can the international labour movement provide?
We need solidarity. At the moment it is still too early to determine exactly how. We are still collecting information and data before asking for international help.
But one thing is for sure: a lot of reconstruction efforts will be necessary. We will need help and expertise to rebuild the infrastructures and buildings that have collapsed.
But we have to be careful not to repeat the scenario of Haiti, where aid was not properly allocated and foreign companies took advantage of the disaster to push their own interests.
To prevent this, we will need to keep pressure on the government both locally and on the international stage.
But we are hopeful. We believe we can work together with the authorities to turn this tragedy into an opportunity by creating jobs, social benefits and reducing inequality in Nepal.