By Mohamed Harees –
“Today, in the May Day, find a worker and shake his hand with gratitude! Without workers, no civilisation could be built!”― Mehmet Murat ildan
Most official holidays in our calendar commemorate national or religious events. Though national holidays are too often treated as cheap rationales for carefree days off, most still involve some sort of salute — however superficial — to the particular occasion’s ostensible purpose. Independence Day for example is one such day. So is the historically significant ‘the May day’ (or Labour Day as it is called in US) which should be a near-perfect amalgamation of the prestige associated with the contributions of the workforce in the overall development of a society defined by the collective respect for Work and workforces of all kinds. This Day marks a new epoch in the annals of human history. It differs essentially from some of the other holidays of the year in that it glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man. May Day should be an opportunity to reflect on the vital role, workers have played in improving the lives of working people of all backgrounds—a calling ever more important in the Covid-19 affected world.
However, the significance of the Day appear to be sadly lost on the worker and has become a show of strength by the traditional political parties of all colours masquerading as workers champions using those who sweat and toil, as pawns in their political games. This fragmentation of workers’ unity along party lines can be seen in many countries including Sri Lanka. It is a shame that the workers instead of mobilising independently to safeguard their own interests, are now paying lip service to their cause by aligning with the very capitalist political parties which have violently suppressed many struggles led by the workers and the youth of the country in the past. With changing times and conditions, many have forgotten the reasons for why the day became established and today has mostly assumed a symbolic meaning.
May Day (1st of May) is an international holiday honouring the struggles of the working class and efforts of labour unions.International Workers’ Day was officially recognized in 1889 at the first International Socialist Congress in Paris to commemorate the Haymarket Affair—a bloody confrontation between striking union workers and Chicago police in 1886. May Day’s origins are centered around the call for an eight-hour workday, a fact of life many of us take for granted but which was fought for fiercely by industrial workers facing brutal conditions in the late 19th century. But the fact that we’re able to debate the workweek at all is a true testament to how far workers rights have come since the 1800s. The Day was declared a holiday in Sri Lanka in 1956 not only to honour the contributions of the nation’s working men and women and their achievements, but also to highlight the need for labour reform laws.
It should be remembered that people were then shot, so the workers could have the 8-hour day; it should be acknowledged that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so workers could have Saturday as part of the weekend; it should be recalled that 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labour only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, it should be understood that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities the people enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for. The sacrifices of so many people cannot be forgotten or we’ll end up fighting for those same gains all over again. This is why commemorating May Day is important.
This Worker’s Day has however lost its original purpose and today has been reduced to a mere hypocrisy, with the spirit being lost among the sea of flags and colourful demonstrations shouting catchy slogans against worker exploitation. Today, the worker in a demonstration seldom realizes that he/she is a mere pawn in the hands of the politicians and capitalists, who works hand in glove to achieve their selfish ends. At the end, the plight of the worker appears to be getting worse by the day due to the widening economic disparities; situation getting aggravated in the post-Covid scenario. Perhaps the main reason this Day’s meaning has been lost amid the shows is the decline of the power of unions. Today, however, there’s a war on organizing, collective bargaining, unions, and workers. In the global, post-industrial era, industrial unions have less clout, and public-sector unions face well-resourced attacks from the right. In some cases, unions have left themselves open to criticism by retreating to the bread-and-butter concerns of its membership like wages and benefits, and by not embracing change, continuous reform and accountability, and an expansive vision of shared progress.
So is May/ Labour Day an anachronism, a throwback to an earlier time, and no longer a meaningful holiday? Answer is that it can be exceptionally meaningful if we redefine the purpose and work towards coming together for the reformation of the laws to fight worker exploitation and make their lot better. The Day should recognize the productivity and contributions of office workers, knowledge workers, and those in service industries along with union workers, whether they are steelworkers, hospital workers, or government employees.
Today, May Day or Labour Day has become more associated with political shows rather than with a celebration of the working class. And perhaps a major reason for this is that the shrinking of the traditional, blue-collar, unionized “working class” is becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the population. In other words, many of the workers that this Day originally honoured just aren’t here anymore. Their jobs have either gone off-shore or simply don’t exist. Knowledge workers are on the increase, perpetually tethered to their smartphones who may not be physically working, but they’re virtually always at work.
Of all the debates surrounding globalization, one of the most contentious involves trade and workers’ rights. The term “exploitation” often conjures up images of workers labouring in sweatshops for 12 hours or more per day, for pennies an hour, driven by a merciless overseer. This is contrasted to the ideal of a “fair wage day’s wage for a fair day’s work”–the supposedly “normal” situation under capitalism in which workers receive a decent wage, enough for a “middle class” standard of living, health insurance and security in their retirement. Sweatshops and modern serfdom however persist to this day in various forms and shapes. It’s an unpalatable truth but for all our technological advances, for all our rights enshrined by international law, the majority world remains crushed underfoot by the wheels of global capital. This exploitation is racialised as it is gendered.
Exploitation is not unique to capitalism. It has been a feature of all class societies, which are divided into two main classes, an exploited class that produces the wealth and an exploiter class that expropriates it. When a capitalist pays a worker a wage, they are not paying for the value of a certain amount of completed labour, but for labour-power. The soaring inequality in contemporary society illustrates this–over the past three decades of neoliberalism, the wealth that workers create has increased, but this has not been reflected in wages, which remain stagnant. Instead, an increasing proportion of the wealth produced by workers swelled the pockets of the superrich, who did not compensate the workers for their increased production on the job.It appears that the capitalist pays the worker for the value produced by their labour because workers only receive wages/salaries after they have worked for a given amount of time. In reality, this amounts to an interest-free loan of labour-power by the worker to the capitalist. Exploitation forms the basis of all the profits shared among the entire capitalist class. It is not simply the case that the wealthy have a lot while workers have little; capitalists accumulate wealth through a system of organized theft from the working class.
Labour exploitation is a form of modern slavery. Victims of labour exploitation are forced to work for nothing, low wages or a wage that is kept by their “owner”. Victims of labour exploitation can be any age, gender and race, but more often than not they are male. There are many unpaid workers too like the women specially the housewives who deserve recognition. The issue of child labour has also become a major concern. In Sri Lanka, the exploitation of both tea plantation workers and garment factory workers are commonplace.
The attack on the 8-hour day was not over. It continues today. There are many other ways which are used to exploit workers. Zero-hours and casual contracts create insecurity for workers and are being used by employers to undercut wages and avoid holiday pay and pension contributions. The eight-hour workday was created during the industrial revolution as an effort to cut down on the number of hours of manual labour that workers were forced to endure on the factory floor. This breakthrough was a more humane approach to work two hundred years ago, yet it possesses little relevance for us today. However, it is said that the eight-hour workday is an outdated and ineffective approach to work. To be more productive as possible, it is needed to let go of this relic and find a new approach. For example, a study recently conducted by the Draugiem Group used a computer application to track employees’ work habits. Specifically, the application measured how much time people spent on various tasks and compared this to their productivity levels. In the process of measuring people’s activity, they stumbled upon a fascinating finding: the length of the workday didn’t matter much; what mattered was how people structured their day. In particular, people who were religious about taking short breaks were far more productive than those who worked longer hours. Flexibility can be supported by workers, for example, where it can accommodate childcare needs or when workers wish to mix work and study.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on working hours and earnings, globally. Millions of workers across the world face mass unemployment as bosses try to make them pay for the coronavirus crisis. Redundancies are at a record high. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted labour markets globally during 2020 and beyond. The short-term consequences were sudden and often severe: Millions of people were furloughed or lost jobs, and others rapidly adjusted to working from home as offices closed. The coronavirus pandemic has blurred the lines between work and personal lives. Many report working longer hours, taking fewer breaks, and signing on at all hours of the day and night. In fact, since the start of the pandemic in the US, many Americans report working as much as three additional hours each day, Bloomberg reports.
With most factories, shops, and workstations shut, a significant portion of the workforce, especially the blue-collar workers are left with no work. Worldwide, two billion people work in the informal sector (mostly in emerging and developing economies) and are particularly at risk. As the businesses are not operational, even they struggle to manage cost and have enough cash flow to take care of the financial well-being of their staff. But what the workforce needs right now is sufficient income to survive and lead a healthy and safe life.
The current global health crisis urges the leaders and the government to relook at how they distribute the cash and take care of the entire community. Some business leaders and ministers across the globe have taken pay cuts to ensure fair distribution of cash. Although ensuring fair compensation during the current crisis is easier said than done. But it is the responsibility of every leader and decision-maker to take care of everyone in their community. To tackle this challenge, ILO suggests measures like extending social protection, supporting employment retention (i.e. short-time work, paid leave, other subsidies), and financial and tax relief, including for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, they propose fiscal and monetary policy measures, and lending and financial support for specific economic sectors.
This May day, it’s useful to remember the egalitarian fight for worker rights, especially at a time where there are lesser protections and safeguards in place.It is time organizations and countries move away from development models that look upon workers merely as a disposable asset class but rather be more empathetic towards their physical, financial, and mental well-being-crisis or no crisis. It is apt to remember, “Everything needs to be done to minimize the damage to people at this difficult time.”