Pokhara Strikes    

1.11.09 Pokhara Strikes
Walking down Lakeside we realized all the businesses were closed. For the past week we've been getting alternating strikes in addition to the usual power cuts. The hotel and restaurant workers union has been holding occasional marches for weeks. The government passed a law that set the minimum wage at 4000 RS (A little more than $100) a month. Last year most places paid about 1000 RS so the restaurants raised it to around 2500 RS. They added a service charge to the bill about 6 months ago. 35% goes to the owner 65% to the staff (in addition to the wage). Of course, this cut down on tips the staff received because most people (like us) when we see 10% service added to the bill treat it as an automatic tip. (I just found out the real situation from Shiva yesterday). So, during the street festival the workers wanted to strike and were persuaded by the Restaurant and Bar Association to wait until after the festival. After the festival they went on strike. Of course, as a pressuring move this was a stupid idea because now it is low season so there are hardly any customers anyway. That added to the power cuts which add the expense of running a generator at some places makes it so I wouldn't be surprised if the strike is actually saving businesses money. Most places seem to be overstaffed and all the workers just hang out watching TV, probably getting free drinks, etc.

So anyway, I bet this strike will go on for a bit until the workers give in (they are the ones who are living hand to mouth).

In addition there is another strike because a man was murdered during the festival- he had some position in the Boating Association. The police supposedly haven't been doing anything about it. So a group of guys go through the street forcing everyone to close. This is difficult for the small businesses struggling to make rent during the low season. It also makes the restaurant and hotel workers strike meaningless. It doesn't make a difference if they strike when Lakeside has all been closed down anyway. And why should the police care if Lakeside is closed (it means less work for them)? The strike organizers were all hanging out at the ATH (a fortunate thing since they let him stay open since they all drink tea and eat breakfast there.) Shiva told us people say the last person they saw the victim with was an Israeli tourist. He says there was another murder at one point and people blamed a tourist because then they don't have to do anything, “Oh a tourist did it and left the country so there is nothing we can do.” It is an easy way to shift attention from the real murderer and close the case. Shiva, and other people have said the victim drank a lot. Shiva is dismayed by all this and says these were the kind of things that happened before the last war. He is worried there will be a new war.

I had an interesting talk with Laxman, the owner of the hotel we are staying at and got his point of view r/e the strike. He said the strikers want 4,600/ month plus all the 10% service fee that the hotels and restaurants are supposed to add to the bill, (which annoys the customers, especially when the service is crappy). He said factories had a lower minimum wage and no benefits (where hotel and restaurant workers get free food, tea (and in the case of hotels) a place to stay. He said the heads of the workers union were Maoists and we ranted about the damage the Maoists were doing to the country. Tourism is such a huge money maker for Nepal and they are punishing the tourist industry. Also, Laxman said the hotel/restaurants had to pay workers and provide 8 hours of work a day even during the slow season. They couldn't hire temp workers for the high season (and if they did it had to be all on the terms of the worker ie. As many hours/ days as they wanted.) I said it was good to give higher wages but business was so fragile right now those changes needed to be gradual and not a 400% increase within 6 months. I said it meant places would probably fire workers making things worse for everyone.

We also complained about the electricity and the country's way of handling it. They want to build a diesel energy plant which is a very expensive form of electricity. I said it probably would be more cost effective for places to buy their own generators. Laxman said Nepal was either 1st or 2nd in water resources (I can't remember). He talked about all the people benefiting from tourism and how the government wants to make everything more expensive for tourists.

I think prices are really cheap for tourists in Nepal but we are here off season. And with all the infrastructure problems, it could damage tourism. It seems the government is making scapegoats out of the small businesses that have the ability to make the country stronger. It seems they should have worked out a bargain like the hotels and restaurants raise waged and in exchange the government puts more $ into infrastructure to make Nepal a more desirable tourist destination or do more promotion of Nepal as an all-season destination (or at least 3 season)

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Steve - posted on 5/4/2009
This is Steve. Ann and I met you two in Chitwan. I am grateful I finally got the address of your blog from Ann.

Nepal has been on my mind with the news of the Maoists trying to sack the top general because he wouldn't put the rebels in the army. If the stories we heard during our time there are true, the rebels were thugs. This is a great post of the problems facing economic growth. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog.

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