May Day: Let’s acknowledge the contributions of older workers

Senior citizens march with placards to demand respect for labour in a rally organised to mark the International Workers Day or May Day, in Kathmandu, on Sunday, May 01, 2016. Photo: RSS

Sanju Thapa Magar

  • Read Time 4 min.

The number of elderly people is increasing globally as the post-war baby boomers enter their sixth and seventh decades. According to the 2011 census, around 8.13 percent people are 60 and above in Nepal. According to 2011, the growth rate of older people was 3.13 which is double the total population growth rate. As per the preliminary data of 2022, the total population growth rate is 0.93 percent. This demographic shift in national and international population structure is expected to create a major impact in the world of the labor market. According to a study by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2026, more than one in 10 workers will be older than 75. 

Developed countries like Japan have already started to manage the older people in the workforce. According to Ian Robertson, Dean of Research at Dublin’s Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, old age in Japan has been postponed psychologically and biologically and it now begins at the age of 80. But in Nepal people of 60 and above are still taken as a dependent and unproductive age group in the formal sector. However, the majority of older people are compelled to do hard work to meet their basic needs in the informal sector.

Large numbers of older people engage in the informal sector or are self-employed in Nepal. But there is no policy for the protection and promotion of the work they are doing. 

“I am originally from a small village of Kavrepalanchowk district. I do not have enough property there to sustain myself. So, I left the village for a better opportunity in later life. Now, I am making my living by selling cigarettes, peanuts, tobacco and other small things in a bamboo basket (dalo) in the pavements of Kathmandu city,” Ram Khadka (name changed) told me his story. “It’s not easy to sit in the polluted streets of Kathmandu all day. But I have no other options. I wish the government would provide space for vendors like me.” 

He is 65 and a street vendor.

This is just an example of an older person. There are thousands of older persons working as street vendors in Kathmandu and they have similar stories to share. Large numbers of older people from rural areas depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Similarly, older women are often involved in unpaid work as family care providers, housewives and so on. Older women are the ones who transfer tradition and cultural knowledge to the new generation while taking care of the family. However, the government has failed to recognize the contribution they have made for the social, cultural and economic growth of the country.

Forgotten by policies

There are government policies and programs regarding employment opportunities for older people. There is not a single clause about older people and employment in the Constitution. Similarly, in the Right to Employment Act (2018), older people who are not involved in any income-generating work are not even considered as unemployed citizens. According to the Act, an unemployed citizen means a citizen of the age group from 18-59 who is not involved in employment for at least one hundred days in one fiscal year or who is not involved in self-employment generating such minimum income as prescribed. Each right related to employment is targeted to the people of the so-called active age group–18-59. So, there is a lack of realization that people of 60 and above age group who are active, healthy and can freely involve in income-generating activities for their livelihood or to support their family.

What should be done?

The Constitution of Nepal must redefine right to work and access to the labor market in the following lines: “Every citizen including people of 60 and above age group who are healthy, capable and willing to continue their work shall have the opportunity to earn his living by doing income-generating activities which they freely choose or accept. The state must be responsible for technical and vocational guidance and training programs to achieve the full realization of this right.” After the amendment in the definition, the state should take special consideration for age-inclusive intervention in employment opportunities.

Older women are involved in unpaid work as family care providers and housewives. They transfer tradition and cultural knowledge to the new generation while taking care of the family but the state has not recognized their contribution.

First, the retirement scheme must be flexible and gradual. The Nepal government still practices the same retirement scheme which was made when the life expectancy of Nepali citizens was almost half of today. Recently, the retirement age limit of civil servants has been increased from 58 to 60 years of service. Large numbers of older people engage in the informal sector or are self-employed in Nepal. But there is no policy for protection and promotion of the work they are doing.  The contribution which older women are providing to their family members is unrecognized and unpaid. Older women’s main role in maintaining the culture and tradition is unrecognized. This should change.

Private sector needs to change the candidate age limit for job opportunities. They should also target older people in their services, For example, insurance companies in Nepal hesitate to insure older people and banks and cooperatives hesitate to provide loans to older people. This should also change. The opportunities should be provided considering the health, safety and productivity of older workers.

Each year, May 1 is celebrated globally to recognize the hard work and dedication of workers since 1889. People across the world observe the day by conducting different campaigns to strengthen and protect the rights of workers. But the issues of older workers who have immense skill, knowledge and experience and who are continuously contributing as a workforce even in their later life are hardly discussed.

On this May Day, let’s bring forth the issues of older workers to encourage, motivate and mainstream them in the workforce.

Sanju Thapa Magar is Chief Executive Officer at Ageing Nepal, an NGO working for the rights of older people.