Electrical workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Australia and Sweden gathered in New Delhi on 26-27 March for the launch of the Asia-Pacific Electrical Workers Network. Unions exchanged information on working conditions and safety in the sector, with a clear focus on the impact that privatisation and outsourcing have had on those conditions.
“The provision of electricity is absolutely critical for decent work and decent lives, and yet so many electrical workers themselves do not enjoy basic rights at work,” said BWI Asia-Pacific Regional Representative Apolinar Tolentino. “This network aims to tackle those concerns head-on, while building workers’ knowledge on issues like occupation health and safety, outsourcing, union-busting, climate change and the need for a just transition.”
One trend that consistently emerged was around the role of international financial institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in promoting privatisation and outsourcing as necessary to achieving economic development. At the same time, however, the political necessity of ensuring consistency of electrical supply often means that workers’ fundamental rights to freedom of association are restricted.
With Indian national elections beginning in April, for the five Indian affiliates present, legislative reform affecting the electrical sector was a key focus during the discussions. The Electrical (Amendment) Bill 2018 aims to expand the failed policies of privatisation across India, while the new Code on Health and Safety combines rules from thirteen Acts with sectoral coverage.
“In Odisha and Delhi states, privatisation has meant fewer workers with fewer rights servicing a larger network of connections, leading to intense overwork, fatigue and a health and safety crisis,” said BWI Indian Affiliates Council Chair RC Khuntia. “Most of India’s electrical workers along with most of the workers in India will be left out of the coverage of the new Health and Safety Code. This is totally unacceptable. All workers must be guaranteed safety on the job.”
President of the Swedish Electricians’ Union Jonas Wallin said that this network was the culmination of many years of efforts for his union. “Electrical workers face some of the most dangerous conditions, dealing with high voltage, working at heights and often in inhospitable weather conditions. This network will champion health and safety as well as ensuring that the rights of women workers are advanced in our industry.”
David Mier, Assistant National Secretary of the Australian Electrical Trades Union, noted that where it was imposed, privatisation eroded working conditions. “Privatisation in Victoria and New South Wales in Australia has been a bad deal for consumers and workers alike. It’s critical that this network puts the issue at the heart of its work so that unions can arm themselves with the knowledge to fight back and ensure decent work.”