Inspiring Workers: Kumar Sapkota

Chet Bahadur Sapkota, also known as Kumar Sapkota, is one of the two member-auditors of the StreetNet Executive Committee. He has been a political activist all his life who has always upheld his convictions even under threats of violence.

Protesting for human and labor rights

Kumar was born and raised in a village in Nepal. He completed his studies there but, since there was no higher education institute available, he had to move to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, to pursue his studies as a young man. Because his family was struggling with a difficult financial situation, Kumar started working in a factory to be able to afford higher education. 

At that time, in the late 1980s, the country was under the absolute monarchy of the Kingdom of Nepal. The authoritarian rule of the King  Birendra Bir Bikram Shah did not ensure any political or labor rights to workers. “The working conditions were very hard” says Kumar “Workers had to work long hours, we did not have rights”.

Kumar with NEST members

Kumar soon joined comrades who wanted to take action and headed a plant-level committee of the only trade union that existed in the country. Along with his comrades, he started protesting the government. The protests were often violent and dangerous. At one point, Kumar was violently assaulted by authorities. “Police hit me so hard that I fell unconscious” he remembers “when I woke up, I was in police custody”. The police tried to charge him for destruction of government property, but since there were no evidence, Kumar was released seven days after. Government doctors treated his injury while in police custody because they did not want the human rights abuses to become public. 

Due to his political activism, Kumar was forced to go underground for two years. He had to quit his studies and he lost his job. However, the strong labor movement of Nepal at the time was successful through its struggles and by 1992, the State formally recognized the trade union movement.  

Kumar was happy, but he was also impoverished and unemployed. He noticed people working on the streets as vendors and decided to do the same in order to survive. “So, twenty-eight years ago” says Kumar “I started working as a street vendor”.

Organizing and defending the rights of street vendors – in Nepal and beyond

When Kumar started working in the streets, he became aware of the many difficulties faced by vendors. They were under constant pressure from the government, military, and police. Often, authorities would come by and either demand cash or steal their goods. Kumar was also concerned about groups of young troublemakers who would harass street vendors.

“That is why we needed a union – so we could come together and resist such types of harassment” he explains. With the support of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), Kumar and other comrades managed to create in 2003 the Nepal Street Vendors Trade Union (NEST), the first organization of its kind in the country.

Since then, Kumar has always been in the Executive Committee of NEST. “My life has never been a personal life. It has been all about the workers and their problems” he says.

Kumar is determined to invest in negotiations with authorities to ensure street vendors can work with dignity and free of harassment. There are more and more vendors in Kathmandu, but they continue to struggle with harassment and authorities confiscate and auction the goods of workers. However, the existence of NEST ensures that street vendors have a voice and are able to push against such abuses.

Kumar with Lorraine Sibanda, StreetNet President

After creating NEST and becoming affiliates to GEFONT, Kumar started becoming involved with the struggle for the rights of informal economy workers at the international level. NEST got in touch and was advised to join StreetNet International by the representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs of GEFONT. After affiliation, Pat Horn – who was International Coordinator at the time – visited Nepal three times and Council and Executive members also visited the country.

At the 6th Congress of StreetNet International in Kyrgyzstan, in 2019, Kumar was elected as a member of the Executive Committee of the organization. He is currently a committed leader of StreetNet International.

He is also the NEST President and a Committee Member of GEFONT for the street vendor sector.

Advice for young people: “Join trade unions!”

Kumar strongly encourages young people to be a part of the trade union movement. He worries about the lack of youth leadership in NEST, considering that Kumar himself is fifty-two years old and the other leaders are generally past the age of forty.

Currently, in Nepal, few young people are interested in joining trade unions. Kumar speculates that part of the issue might be the fear that they feel in regard to facing government authorities and suffer difficult situations.

However, his experience has taught him that collective struggle is the only way to effectively defend the rights of workers. “Young people need to know that if they work together, they will be able to realize their rights” he stresses.

As a lifelong political activist, he is happy that devoting his life to workers has ensured that street vendors have at least some rights now. “I am happy when street vendors are happy, I am not happy when they are facing difficulties and harassment.” he summarizes. Currently, he is concerned about the unstable political situation in Nepal and the consequences it could have for workers. Kumar is carefully monitoring the political situation and pushing back against any abuses or misconduct he identifies, as he always done and as he will continue to do in the future.