18 June, 2019

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May Day And Workers’ Rights

By Lionel Bopage

Dr. Lionel Bopage

May Day was declared a holiday in Sri Lanka in 1956 for the government sector, bank and mercantile sectors.  May Day celebrations have never clashed with the interests of or activities conducted during Vesak celebrations. Despite this situation and without consultation, the President has unilaterally decided to postpone May Day on the pretext that there will be a “Vesak Week” this calendar year. A gazette notification issued by Home Affairs Minister yesterday cancelled the May Day holiday which is due on May 1.

The President’s postponement of the May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka to May 7 is allegedly because of a request made by Mahanayaka Theros., This is a crass political ploy of exploiting religious sentiment to inhibit protests of the working people by diverting their attention away from the burning issues of the day. Some of the parties and unions who are supposed to represent workers’ interests have already fallen in line with the government. Others have decided to take their protests to the streets on May 1, despite a municipal ban on marches.

The issue of overlapping of May Day with Vesak Day has arisen many times previously. The façade of religiosity becomes apparent at times when this occurs. In 1967, the UNP regime postponed May Day celebrations to the 2nd of May. As quoted in news reports, the Communist Party (Peking Wing) opposed it and Maithripala Sirisena supported the Communist Party’s decision. Now he himself is displaying his opportunism by postponing May Day celebrations.   

Several trade unions in Sri Lanka have strongly objected to this decision to postpone May Day, emphasising that it is a right of workers to celebrate international workers’ day on May 1. The JVP has declared that they will go ahead with the May Day Rally but will hold the Colombo rally on May 7. It is holding its May 1st rally in Jaffna, which is interesting. One could question whether this option is utilised not to confront the issue giving prominence to religion over workers’ rights. According to the JVP, bringing large crowds to Colombo on May Day for celebrations would become an obstacle for Vesak celebrations that will be held in Colombo. This is not the first time the JVP seems to have wavered on this issue. In 2008, the JVP took the initiative to change the May Day from May 1 due to Vesak celebrations, by requesting the government to do so.

This year, Vesak Day does not fall on May 1. The clash is due to the declaration of a Vesak week this year. If the Vesak Week is turned into an annual event, it will be interesting to find out what the JVP position would be. One could easily interpret and equate the JVP position to “killing two birds with one stone”. Thus, they avoid having a May Day rally in Colombo on the May Day itself, despite the relevance of the International Working Day to the working people of the south of Sri Lanka, many of whom reside in Colombo.

When we were released from prison in November 1977, the position of the JVP towards the mobilisation of workers was to organise them in a single workers’ federation, without being concerned of their individual political affiliations. The slogan was One Trade Union for One Industry. However, this did not materialise and the JVP then formed its own trade union under the banner of “Socialist Workers Union”. This fragmentation of workers unity along party lines can be seen in many countries including Sri Lanka and India.

In Sri Lanka, workers have joined ranks with capitalist political parties such as the UNP, the SLPP and the SLFP. Even those on the left are associated with and scattered around, many political parties and groups. These political entities, when they were in power directly or as constituents of capitalist ruling coalitions, have violently suppressed many struggles led by the workers and the youth of the country. Sectarianism among trade unions contributes to not having joint May Day events, thus contributing to the weakness of the workers’ movement. This is also one of the factors that has affected the legitimacy of the trade unions in the public eye and has also contributed to the apathy of some sections of the working people.

Workers instead of mobilising independently to safeguard their own interests, are now paying lip service to their cause. Meanwhile the regime is working on the advice and agenda of the IMF and the World Bank by stripping hard-earned workers’ rights, including the eight-hour working day. This situation will not change, until trade unions organise on the basis of One Trade Union for One Industry policy. At the same time, the only guarantee for such unity will be to practice democracy within trade unions.

Apparently, one of the main trade unions that allow working people with diverse political views to come together for participative decision making is the Ceylon Mercantile Union that had been previously led by comrade, the late Bala Tampoe. However, despite workers with diverse political views being allowed to join the union, I note that during his long tenure, a solid grip was maintained on the union by the General Secretary till his demise.

Thus, this Government has declared May Day a working day. Furthermore, the Colombo Municipal Council controlled by the UNP has refused to grant permission to hold May Day rallies in public parks in Colombo on May 1. This is clearly a ban on all May Day celebrations in Colombo. The sort of repressive action this government takes against those organising May Day events on May 1, could very well be on par with the violent repressive action the previous regime took against e workers struggles at the time. As the United States and several other countries had done, the Government of Sri Lanka seems to have come forward to openly curb democratic rights of the working people.

One could observe historic parallels; when many socialist groups came into being during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Some of them were political parties and others just choirs. Many socialists were even elected to represent their constituencies. However, big businesses and the state controlled the political process. Seeing that there was no way they could advance for a better future, many rejected the available political space, which had been designed to protect the wealthy. Most of them broke away from political organisations to become anarchists. They stressed the need for worker directed industries and cherished direct action over bureaucratic political processes.

Working people all over the world celebrates their traditions, histories and victories on May 1, every year. The socialists and communists of the Second International commemorated the Haymarket Affair in Chicago on the first of May, which became May Day as we know it. It is now a public holiday in many countries with   workers around the world including Sri Lanka celebrating May Day with protest rallies and marches. For many millennia, May Day has been a day celebrating rebirth and fertility. Originally, it was a pagan holiday celebrating the start of summer. May Day is also related to the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and is associated with the spring festivals of the Renaissance, particularly in the northern hemisphere and to this day is celebrated in many cultures. Later, the pagan nature of May Day gave way to a more secular celebration in Europe and North America. In this sense, there is no contradiction or clash between the interests of those celebrating May Day as the International Working Day and those who celebrate it in a cultural manner.

Since the 1880s, it has been recognised as the International Worker’s Day. At the time, working class movements had been fighting for fair working conditions including a standardised eight-hour working days and the rights of the trade unions. Under drastic and adverse working conditions, workers had to work 10 to 16-hour days with no holiday provisions.  Due to unsafe work practices, death and injury were a commonplace occurrence. During this time, the working class was in constant struggle to gain an 8-hour work day. However, it was only in the late 1880’s that organized labour was able to gain sufficient power to declare the 8-hour working day, without the consent of employers.

In 1884, Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor) proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886.” Many reiterated this proclamation and wished to support it with strikes and demonstrations. Initially, anarchists and radicals thought this was too reformist as it failed to strike “at the root of the evil.” Despite these hesitations, “an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day”. With this, the radicals agreed to fight for the 8-hour working day, but with the realisation that greater issues than the 8-hour day existed.

May 1, 1886 was the first May Day celebration in the world. In Chicago, 40,000 went out on strike. Parades, bands and tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets illustrated the workers’ strength and unity. Strikers responded to the police beatings by throwing rocks and the police responded with gunfire, killing several strikers and wounding many. The Chicago protests spread across Europe. Yet, many being not aware of this believe it is a day celebrated only by the communists and socialists. Despite this belief, May Day has continued to be associated with the objective of achieving social and economic fairness and justice for all working people.

Socialism became an attractive proposition to workers only at a later stage. The idea of working class control over production and distribution of all goods and services was new and very attractive. They came to the understanding that capitalism worked only in favour of owners of means of production by trading the labour and lives of workers for profit. With thousands of needless deaths of men, women and children at work, life expectancy was as low as early twenties in certain industries. When there was no hope but death and destitution, socialism offered them a humane alternative.

Nowadays workers in the west: coming from many faiths and ethnicities work together to protect the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. For the past several years, immigration policy has been a focus for mobilising at May Day events. In the modern movement for worker’s rights, immigrants and their supporters march in the streets.  Immigration has been compounded by the ruling classes into a divisive political issue; we need to transform it into a human issue.

History teaches us that people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today. There is a lot more to fight for. If we remember that people were shot for us to enjoy the eight hour working day; if we recognise that homes were burnt down for us to have Saturday as part of the weekend; if we recollect child victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labour only to be beaten down by the police and company thugs, then only can we understand that our current conditions cannot be taken for granted. The sacrifices so many people made cannot be forgotten. Otherwise, we will have to fight all over again to gain the very same rights our forbearers won. That is the historical lesson we need to learn when celebrating May Day, which is vital.

24 April 2018

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Latest comments

  • 2
    5

    The person who introduced terrorism to Sri Lanka (in 1971) has spoken! Bravo!

    • 2
      1

      Ones terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
      The issue at hand has nothing to do with either but a Mahanayake dictating what a Elected President of the country should do and not do.

      This is not the first time during this month. First it was cancelling the appointment of Cooray to Kandy as governor because he was a low cast according to the Mahanayake.

  • 1
    3

    WOW, YOu promote workers rights from australia becuse you are liberated. What a dishonest way to practice it. did you get employment that make you proud or you are just another social security number.

  • 2
    3

    JVP is only party that could bring back the rights of workers. No any capitalist party

    • 2
      1

      Sorry Dr. JVP cannot bring back or protect anything. It has been around since the late sixties, sacrificed many souls in 71 and 78 but what has it really achieved?

      If the election system was not changed and still first past the post it wont even have the number it has in parliament.

      Now it wants to abolish the executive presidency. This is a good move but does it have the ability to follow through?

      • 1
        0

        Burt

        “but what has it really achieved”

        What does it really stand for?
        JVP is an important component of competitive racism, bordering fascism.

    • 3
      0

      Dr NASS

      “JVP is only party that could bring back the rights of workers. “

      Oh please.

  • 3
    0

    May Day – International Workers Day is celebrated right round the world on the 1st of May. Even though it actually does not clash with Vesak Poya this year it has been postponed and the impact that the Trade Unions and workers normally have on this day may be psychologically diminished. The Government needs to balance religious sensitiveness with workers sensitiveness and offer the average working class person their due day to celebrate.

    • 0
      1

      May day is celebrated in russia as te exhibition of Weapons day. But in the USA it is in September first not in the May first. It is in Sri lanka to politicians dumb workers. They get a break and free Aracks, rice packets and a trip to go to their trade union suported political party bull$hiting their future.

      • 0
        0

        Dear Jim Softy not very different from what the majority of Buddhists do on Vesak too, right? Either way, all hypocrites should be given their due day.

  • 1
    1

    Thero who opposes all Yahapalanaya action refused to write against declaring one full week as Buddhist Religious days and blocking normal Human activities. Further, May day is an International day, shifting it by one week is wrong. I asked him to write about it in one of his essays. He didn’t. Last two years he was hitchhiking in Joint Comedy Club’s May Day rallies and bringing in Photos. This is what his Cuban Communism is. He is only an egomaniac narcissist, not a left movement personality.

    This new Vesak Week means one in four all May-s in future will be deferred. Sinhala Buddhism now has surpassed the Sharia.

    • 2
      1

      Malli, ‘Sinhala Buddhism now has surpassed the Sharia.’ Don’t make yourself look ridiculous you innate moron.

      • 1
        1

        I am not jealous of you. I will not compete with you for that. Please keep it with you that title, as the sole owner, happily!

      • 5
        0

        Sinhala Buddhism has surpassed nothing. This crap is practiced only by a minority in Sri Lanka and Burma.
        Sinhala Buddhism is NOT the same as Buddhism, saying so will be like saying Muslim religion and ISIS is the same. Which practically is stupid.

        • 2
          0

          Burt

          “Sinhala Buddhism is NOT the same as Buddhism,”

          Do you thing Taraki understands the difference between Sinhala/Buddhism and Buddhism?

          Taraki and fellow bigots are fed with so much racism they do not want to understand what Sinhala/Buddhism means in fact it is nasty political force which is drowning the country, fascism on the march.

          And Taraki is proud of it.

      • 0
        1

        TARAKI: Idiot why don’t you wrtie HOw Sinhala buddhism comes here. Even the word RIGTHS is a CAPITALIST word probably related to christian value system. BOPAGE is a cunning hypocrite which got because of his selfishness destroyed thousands of youth Some how he escaped thejail and he has not stopped and cannot stop his christian vlues and innate love for capitalism. these selfish Che guveras made so many youth killed and govt and privat proeprties destroyed. Even after so many decades they can not think because of their value system. In Asia it not RIGHTS. It is How I can help other people. BOPAGE was taking against Capitalism and now he is living it he doe snot expose himself.

      • 0
        1

        TARAKI: I made a mistake, sorry. I PAss to To MALLE URIN.

  • 0
    0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 1
    2

    Don’t worry about a thing comrades, Artificial Intelligence will soon be running everything from your home to your car. Eventually even Sri Lanka will be run by robots. Unlike the present clowns, these robots will be super efficient and only do what is best for the nation. You won’t need a May Day holiday, every day will be a holiday.

    • 2
      0

      Artificial Intelligence has to be Set up by Human Intelligence!
      So what is to stop Greedy Human Intelligence, hired by the ‘Present Clowns’, from Taking Over and Abusing Artificial Intelligence?

      • 1
        0

        Hamlet, you have a point! The UN & Western robots will have to set up our robots for us as nobody else can be trusted!

    • 0
      0

      ”You won’t need a May Day holiday.”
      Paul,
      I see your logic in artificial intelligence. Britain gave you an unwanted load, ruling the Ceylon. You smarts have now leased it to China’s robots.

      Already Chinese criminal Prisoners are used to replace your work so you can have your holiday. Soon, China wouldn’t want to send even the prisoners, but will send the programed robots, but the pass is in the cabinets of Communist Party’s headquarters filing cabinets.
      Now China is giving you holidays. In addition to that, send the woman folk to Middle East. There they can work harder than robots for 24 hours. You get you Biriyani and Arrack.
      After Chinese Artificial intelligence take over, everyday going to be a May Day Holiday for Lankaweyans.
      After Sinhalese Intelligence took over (1948) everyday of Tamil life have turned into Mayday! Mayday! Sinhala Only gave a lifelong holiday from jobs. But it wasn’t like holidays, but Holy Days, praying for our lives, but not for lost employments.

      Please enjoy the fun we have been having from 1948.
      Best Wishes!

  • 1
    1

    Full Moon day ….and now vesak day.
    I dont get it. lets focus on Full Moon day.

    Apparently Buddha attained Nirvana on “a” full moon day. But there is no record in Mahavamsa exactly on which full moon day he attained Nirvana. Surely he didn’t attained Nirvana 12 times.?
    My theory is this. lets say he first attained Nirvana on a January full moon..he .went upstairs. ha ha whom did he meet the Sri Lankan Mahanaykes of the day. They sent him down with the order to come back on the next full moon day. so Buddha attain Nirvana yet again on the February full moon day. He goes up again and yet again the Sri Lankan Mahanayakes sent him back to earth I mean to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Mahanayakes sent Buddha back 12 times. so that they can have 12 extra holidays for the workers.
    and whet the hell now they wan to delay the workers day by one week?
    hmmmm haha the whole week will be a week of chaos no work country at a standstill celebrating vesak and May day for one whole week greta move Mahanaykes

    who is going to pay for the arrack for one whole week ….never mind the loss to the economy

    you guys thought that the Hambantota Harbour and the Matra Airport are the white elephants?

    The elephant in the “room” is the dead tiger

    • 1
      0

      Rajash, the Buddha did not attain Nirvana. Nirvana is not an attainment but a realisation. Something that you wake up to, like waking up from a dream.

      As for the Full Moon day, it is pointless to speculate whether it is accurate or not. The May full moon gives us a day to focus on. According to some, Jesus was born in March and not on Christmas day but again it gives Christians a day to focus on.

      • 0
        0

        ok so every full moon day he realised that he has attained Nirvana …..but realised oh no not yet …..?

        25th of Every Month is not Christmas day unlike every full moon day is a Poya Day?

        Any way what has that to do with taking away the workers right?

  • 0
    0

    Trade UNions are another politial force. today, the work force is different in many countrues. In Sri lanka it is highly organized and because it is a politcal force, the abuse the system. Sri lankan Trade unions should be destroyed as they a politically abusing the country.

  • 0
    0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 1
    0

    Bopage and Wijeweera are maestros who introduced terrorism in 1971. Both hail from the same caste and same village in Matara district. Some say Bopage was sharper than Wijeweera, that’ may be right. Bopage survived and thrived. Well done bro!

    • 0
      0

      You are spot on, Bopage was cleverer than Wijeweera. Before 1971 insurrection Wijeweera did not know how to raise funds for his movement. It was Bopage’s brainchild that banks be robbed. On one occasion a security guard died that was in Kegalle Bank of Ceylon. Then, making home made handbombs. This was also Bopage’s branchild. In Nelumdeniya (Kegalle district) two people died. That led to the arrest of Wijeweera. When 1971 insurrection happened Wijeweera was incarcerated in Jaffna prison. The whole ground operation was led by Bopage including capturing Sirima. He failed misreable by giving message to Wellawaya boys to attack early. The whole operation collapsed and Bopage should hold part of the blame. I heard he went and hid in a convent in Moratuw/

      I obtained this information from the excerpts from HNG Fernando J’s judgement.

      Any way all is interesting as how young educated men rebelled against a strong willed government. This was the first time it happenned in Asia. Hats should be off to comrades Wijeweea, Bopage, Loku and Podi Athula, Kumanayke, Victor Ivan, Uyangoda, Gamanayake and Susil Siriwardane.

  • 0
    0

    Apparently all other Buddhist countries are celebrating Vesak Poya day on the 29th May. Only Sri Lanka is bringing it forward and celebrating it on April 29th.

    https://www.srilankamirror.com/news/news-in-brief/8283-vesak-poya-has-become-a-joke

  • 0
    0

    What has that UNP -SLFP has done? By that UNP done to the Public in deeds ?
    First they abolished May Day holiday by given excuses of Vessak Day.!
    The next step is by given “May Day of Labor” then given as carrot stick by UNP RW has postpone Buddhist Vessak holiday indefinitely by order of MS of President and Prime of RW by advice from CBK of SLFP !!! # $$$.
    The Labors have lost that International Labor Day? Because RW of UNP is anti- Labor!
    Buddhist lost Vessak Days ? It is obvious RW of UNP leader was born by Christen heredity, he (RW) is anti -Buddhist >
    This political changes support by JVP 2015 that bring UNP-SLFP into power 2015 January 8th leadership of Ranil W….. MS and CBK?
    Where is that JVP stand now? Power benefits of Red Elephant by loosed of power that RIGHTS of People by that UNP-JVP join operation?
    Under UNP Labor Day become black day for Labors ……In Sri lanka after 65 years.
    Where is that JVP accountability ???

  • 0
    0

    Who are the workers and the labourers in SL who should be entitled to celebrate May Day holiday. Politicians boycott, students boycott, lecturers stop work when uni staff boycott, doctors strike/boycott, GMOA/IUSF on the streets are on permanent May day, Sangha have too good a time to boycott except IUBF where robes visibly do exploits. Perhaps street sweepers, estate workers and other hand to mouth dailies are entitled to May day, but the clash with full moon should not affect them as they are too busy to attain nirvana. GMOA is now obeying its paymaster and flexing muscles for permanent May day to topple govt. by going against KDU Act of former defence secretary now amended on H.E instruction to AG/UGC. Vesak full moon will definitely aggravate their insanity. Sinhala Buddhism can do with an additional Vesak full moon in May too.

  • 0
    1

    I have heard Bopages are living in luxury in Australia. If true by talking about workers right for May Day from Australia they are instigating another revolution this time from arm chair. Mr Bopage don’t preach us the workers from cold room please decend to the real world.

    • 0
      0

      Bopages live in an ordinary Australian house.
      Naomal asoka: Been to a house occupied by MR, Basil, Gota, Namal? Or the humble RK penthouse?

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