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May Day celebrated around the world

Posted by Your Town  May 1, 2013 10:55 AM

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May 1 or May Day, is Labor (spelled Labour in India) Day in India. This is not to be confused with the distress signal which is a call for help, and is derived from the French word m'aider mainly used by boats and aircrafts via radio to communicate the call for help. The first day of the month of May is an official public holiday every year. India is one of the many countries that celebrates Labor Day each year on May 1. The first Labor Day in the country was organized by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan in Madras on May 1, 1923.

All over the world, May Day continues to symbolize the international struggle of the working class against the capitalist system. It is a day when workers can raise their class demands for unity and against racism, imperialist war, national chauvinism and the entire ruling class. The legacy of May Day provides optimism for future struggles to come. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries. However, many countries do not celebrate Labour Day on May 1. In Australia, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday of October. The United States of America and Canada are also among the exceptions. This, despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880s in the USA.

Looking at the history of the May 1, the struggle for the eight-hour day began in the 1860s. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, organized in 1881 (and changing its name in 1886 to American Federation of Labor ) passed a resolution which asserted that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution". The following year the Federation repeated the declaration that an eight-hour system was to go into effect on May 1, 1886. With workers being forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly. In the months prior to May 1, 1886, thousands of workers, organized and unorganized, members of the organization Knights of Labor and of the federation, were drawn into the struggle. Chicago was the main center of the agitation for a shorter day. The anarchists were in the forefront of the Central Labor Union of Chicago, which consisted of 22 unions in 1886, among them the seven largest in the city. International Workers' Day is the commemoration of the Haymarket Event in Chicago in 1886. In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle (1889), following an initiative from the American Federation of Labor, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. These were so successful that May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International's second congress in 1891. State, business leaders, mainstream union officials, and the media and the United States government declared May 1st to be "Law Day", and gave the workers instead Labor Day, the first Monday of September - a holiday devoid of any historical significance.

Around the world and especially in Asia low paid workers held demonstrations to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions a week after a Bangladesh garment factory building collapse killed hundreds — a grim reminder of how lax safety regulations make going to work a danger in many poor countries. The New York Times reported that factories in Bangladesh, churn out clothing for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M. Global retailers like Target and Walmart now operate sourcing offices in Dhaka, the capital. Garments are critical to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 80 percent of manufacturing exports and more than three million jobs. The country also has the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. During the past two years, as workers have seen their meager earnings eroded by double-digit inflation, protests and violent clashes with the police have become increasingly common.

Reports are coming in about laborers in Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere marched and chanted en masse Wednesday, sounding complaints about being squeezed by big business amid the surging cost of living.

Many of the Asian countries provide the manufacturing ground for world's largest multinational companies. Developing countries in Asia are increasingly attractive to multi-national companies (MNCs) because they enable bargaining power over wages. And cheap labor is central to the low-skilled industry’s growth. Labor costs account for only 1% to 3% of the retail price paid by the final customer, while profit margins are more than 50%. MNCs are able to take advantage of emerging markets in developing countries, and locating production facilities in these countries works to their financial advantage. As MNCs seek to increase market share through expansion - a critical factor in remaining competitive globally they prefer countries that fulfill both of the requirements of low cost production and easy access to emerging markets.

Workers rights are human rights and May 1 is only one day of the year that their voices are allowed to be louder and globally it needs to be a movement linked to wider issues of social change. There is increased need labor standards with American trade policy and for global bodies like the International Labor Organization to become more effective. A steady process of ensuring core labor standards needs to ensure in the spirit of International Worker’s Day.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.

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