May Day in a pandemic -ridden world | Daily News


May Day in a pandemic -ridden world

Workers around the world celebrate May Day, also known as Labour Day and International Workers’ Day, today. It is a national holiday in more than 80 countries including Sri Lanka and the event is celebrated in some of the most staunchly capitalist countries too. However, due to the pandemic restrictions, no May Day rallies or gatherings of any kind will be held anywhere in the world including Sri Lanka this year. However, there will be plenty of “Virtual May Day” gatherings around the world via the Internet, which we have outlined in a separate article elsewhere in this newspaper.

This year, it is an incredibly challenging year for workers around the world as the pandemic has put paid to millions of jobs worldwide with companies from airlines to clothing chains virtually closing or winding down their operations in the absence of a market. It is in this context that most countries including Sri Lanka are striving to re-orient their economies to boost local agriculture and other economic sectors so that more jobs can be generated locally. That is one way in which the working class can participate in the process of reviving economies affected by the Coronavirus.

Most workers are also fortunate in that the majority of Sri Lankan companies (leave apart the State sector, which anyway offers job security) do not practice hire and fire policies, which would have brought about drastic consequences for workers and their families. This is what has happened in many developed countries, where jobs evaporated virtually overnight as the lockdown began to take effect. Sri Lanka has very stringent labour laws, the value of which we realise in an environment like the present one. But to find out where this idea of workers’ rights came from, we have to go back in time to the USA of 1880s.

The May Day tradition is around 125-years-old, having begun as an agitation campaign against harsh working conditions by workers in the US in 1886. They were demanding a 40-hour working week. The slogan was “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will”.

In the famous 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago, US, police fire killed several trade union leaders and workers who were engaged in a demonstration seeking better working conditions and fewer working hours. It was usual for employers then to get their employees to work for 16-18 hours a day. It is generally accepted that these events eventually led to the adoption of the 40 hour working week.

In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891. However, the US and Canada now observe the Labour Day in September.

With the establishment of the United Nations, a specialist agency for labour matters, called the International Labour Organization (ILO) was created. In cooperation with Governments around the world, it has evolved Labour Charters honoured by all UN members. This has ensured much better working conditions than the demonstrators of 1886 ever envisaged.

Sri Lankans have observed May Day for decades. It is a vibrant event with rallies, demonstrations and parades. 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. Although one can no longer witness the massive May Day rallies of yesteryear, the day has still not lost its significance in our country.

Now the focus has shifted firmly towards political propaganda, with workers’ rights and struggles often relegated to the second place. Parties should strive to put the worker first in their rallies and meetings.

In the end, it very hard to separate the labour movement from politics in Sri Lanka and for that matter, in most other countries. The workers in many organisations are represented by trade unions which are for the most part affiliated to the major political parties. There are some stand-alone trade unions, that find it hard to raise their voice without the backing of a political party.

Sri Lanka has a vibrant trade union sector, especially in the one-million strong government workforce. Most private sector companies generally do not tolerate trade unions, but this is beginning to change. There also are a number of powerful professionals’ trade unions which should essentially be non-political but which have increasingly dipped their toes in political waters.

Most trade unions are well known for making demands from the Government in power. For this reason, many trade unions are nearly always at loggerheads with the Government. Some of the demands are reasonable, but most are not. 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.

But do workers and trade unions pause to think of their obligations to their organisations and to the public? This rarely happens. Work really is a two-way street. This May Day, which we are marking amidst unprecedented conditions, should give pause to everyone concerned on the best ways to rise up and get ahead of the curve again, with industrial peace as the key factor. One look at the global scene, outlined below, tells us that there is a long, hard road ahead of us and the entire world.

Some 1.6 billion people in informal work, which is nearly half the global workforce, have become at risk of losing income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the International Labor Organisation has estimated.

This represented nearly four-fifths (76%) of the total 2 billion people in informal work and close to half of the entire workforce, of 3.3 billion people, worldwide.

The informal economy refers to jobs which typically have little protection, such as for income in case of sickness or lockdown.

The United Nations’ labor agency estimated that people in informal work have experienced a 60% drop in income in the first month of the coronavirus crisis. Those in informal work in Africa and the Americas experienced the biggest drop, of 81%, according to the estimates.

It said people in this group were most at risk of losing income because these workers were more likely to be working in high-risk sectors, such as retail and food, that would be affected by the coronavirus. The ILO also said there were more informal workers in developing countries. The “informal economy” accounts for jobs that are neither taxed nor monitored by governments, and that make up a huge proportion of developing economies. Some two-thirds of the world’s working people are employed in such “grey market” jobs.

It calculated that close to 1.1 billion informal economy workers lived in countries that were in full lockdown, as of April 22, while another 304 million were in countries in partial lockdown. Lockdown measures have been implemented by governments around the world in an effort to contain the spread of Covid-19, which latest figures show has now infected more than 3 million people globally and killed over 218,000.

The ILO said the drop in global working hours in the second quarter of 2020 was now expected to be “significantly worse” than its estimates at the beginning of April, due to an extension of lockdown measures keeping businesses closed.

It now forecasts a 10.5% drop in working hours globally in the second three months of 2020, which is equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs, based on a standard 48-hour working week. The ILO previously estimated a 6.7% fall in working hours, which is the equivalent of 195 million jobs.

Guy Ryder, ILO director-general, said that as the pandemic and jobs crisis evolve, the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes more urgent.

“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “They have no savings or access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, they will simply perish.”

The ILO’s latest assessment of the worldwide situation suggests the calamitous scale of the impact of the pandemic on jobs. Coronavirus has infected more than 3.1 million people globally, killed more than 226,000 and shut down several of the world’s most major economies.

“It shows I think in the starkest possible terms that the jobs employment crisis and all of its consequences is deepening by comparison with our estimates of three weeks ago,” Ryder told a briefing on Wednesday.

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