Significance of May Day | Daily News

Significance of May Day

The working masses in Sri Lanka will celebrate May Day (Labour Day) today. It was shifted from the traditional May Day (May 1) as it fell during the Vesak week. This move was not without its fair share of controversy and some parties and trade unions chose to have their rallies on May 1 itself. Some, like the JVP have chosen to hold rallies on both days in different parts of the country. What really matters is not the day per se, but the increased recognition of the workers’ struggle for better working conditions.

This year’s May Day has seen political parties moving out of Colombo and reaching out to workers in other parts of the country. The JVP, for example, successfully held a rally in Jaffna which brought workers from the North and South together. The UPFA will hold its rally in Batticaloa. This is an encouraging trend.

Workers in Sri Lanka have been celebrating May Day for many decades. Over the years, May Day has been transformed into a political event based loosely on the significance of the day for the working class. It has become an opportunity for the political parties to show their grassroots strength and also their affinity to the working masses.

It is in fact very hard to separate the labour movement from politics. The workers in many organisations are represented by trade unions which are for the most part affiliated to major political parties. Sri Lanka has a vibrant trade union sector, especially in the one-million strong government workforce. There also are a number of powerful professionals’ trade unions which are essentially non-political. But they do have immense clout, mainly because the services they render are essential to the public.

Sri Lanka’s trade unions have a predilection for demanding higher salaries for their workforce, regardless of the economic situation of the country. Trade unions should stop the current practice of resorting to strikes at the drop of a hat if their demands are not met. That should be a last resort, to be considered only when negotiations with the authorities fail. They should stop taking the public ‘hostage’ when they strike to win their demands. Unfortunately, this is what happens when medical professionals and workers, road transport/rail/port workers and employees in several other fields strike. If doctors at government hospitals are on strike, where can the poor patients go?

But do workers and trade unions pause to think of their obligations to their organisations and to the public? This rarely happens. Employer-employee relations are very important in this respect. All employers, government or private, must respect labour laws and rights. A smooth relationship between the two sides – often called ‘industrial peace’ – is necessary for the smooth functioning of any organisation.

Another important aspect of work that both employers and employees often neglect is safety at work. Many jobs come laden with ‘occupational hazards’ but most employers often do not equip their workers with the required safety information and gear. Apart from occupational hazards per se, some workplaces do not have adequate structural and fire safety. Ventilation and sanitary facilities are also inadequate in some workplaces. Regulations governing such facilities should be introduced without delay.

Another irritant is that there still is a disparity between the salary scales of male and female workers in some sectors. This should not be the case. Women workers, especially in labour-intensive jobs, are generally known to be more productive. ‘Equal work, equal salaries’ should be the guideline.

Yet another negative point is that most Sri Lankan workplaces are not disabled-friendly. Most organisations which claim to be ‘equal opportunity’ employers are reluctant to welcome disabled employees to their ranks. There obviously are certain jobs that a disabled person will not be able to do but there are many that they can do, without any problem. For example, no one expects a visually impaired person to be able to drive a bus, but he or she can easily become a telephone operator with some training. This is another aspect that labour authorities must look into.

They should study International Labour Organisation (ILO) guidelines as well as labour regulations in other countries in this regard. In fact, Sri Lanka has been working closely with the ILO for several decades. Sri Lanka has signed many Labour Conventions and Charters which had helped workers around the country. This fruitful relationship should continue for the betterment of the working class.

Those who are employed, be it in the Government, private or even in self-employment sectors must bear one thing in mind: they have a job. On the other hand, there are thousands who do not have a job at all. This is one more reason why the employed must be determined to do an honest job, literally.

Sri Lanka’s unemployment rate is very low, but it would be beneficial to the economy if more jobs can be created here and abroad for the unemployed youth. This must be a priority for the labour, agriculture, industries and foreign employment ministries. Zero unemployment should be the ultimate target.


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