The Life of Labour: May Day Special Issue

Why we celebrate May Day.

What has the labour movement ever done for you? Apart from the 8-hour work day, the 5-day work week and the weekend, minimum wages, benefits and social security, and the movement against child labour? Not much.

This 1886 engraving was the most widely reproduced image of the Haymarket affair. Credit: Harper’s Weekly

It’s easy to forget how bad things were in the West around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Consider the status of children – who were regularly used to do work that adults couldn’t (or wouldn’t) undertake. They were also employed simply because they were cheaper. In a chapter of Das Kapital on the working day, Karl Marx quotes factory inspectors who have interviewed working children: William Wood, 9 years old, was 7 years and 10 months when he began to work. He “ran moulds” (carried ready-moulded articles into the drying-room, afterwards bringing back the empty mould) from the beginning. He came to work every day in the week at 6 a.m., and was let off about 9 p.m. “I work till 9 o’clock at night six days in the week. I have done so seven or eight weeks.” Fifteen hours of labour for a child 7 years old! J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.” Fernyhough, a boy of ten: “I have not always an hour (for dinner). I have only half an hour sometimes; on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”

It was only with the 1938 Fair Labour Standards Act that child labour was regulated in America. The same act enforced an 8-hour work day and the 5-day workweek – about 150 years since the demand was first articulated. The demand for a regulated 8-hour work day started in the beginning of the 19th century and was a constant demand by the labour movement across the United States, the UK, etc. for the next 150 years. Over these years, numerous rallies, protests and strikes had been undertaken by various groups within the broader movement. Many of these had been militant actions and many more had been brutally put down by police or private security. The Haymarket Massacre of 1886 was one such event.

On 1st May 1886, tens of thousands of working class men and women in Chicago went on strike to demand the 8-hour work day. Despite the numbers, it was a peaceful march. But a few days later, on 3rd May, violence broke out between police, private guards and workers at a strike at a metalwork factory. The next day a public rally was held at the Haymarket Square to condemn the police brutality. The police came down on the rally and as they began to disperse the crowd, a bomb went off. The police started firing. The organisers of the protest were arrested and condemned to death despite the fact that they were almost definitely not the ones who threw the bomb. It isn’t clear whether it was an anarchist who threw the bomb or an agent provocateur working for the police but the resulting backlash against ‘the reds” led to the suppression of a number of important political and social causes.

As Eric Chase wrote in 1993, “When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day, if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched through the streets protesting working conditions and child labour only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities we 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 we celebrate May day.”

The message has resonated in India as well. As a country, we went in a very short span of time from being under the yoke of a foreign rule to a free nation with progressive laws that complied with the standards of the International Labour Organisation. The idea of being ‘business-friendly’ wasn’t the primary intention of those who drafted our constitution. There were genuinely more important things to be done. But today, we live in a time where business is seen as the best way to uplift the poorest of the poor. And a country trying to be business-friendly has little scope for a labour movement. This is tragic because the labour movement in many ways ensures the soul of business – usually against its own will.

Art by Ricardo Levins Morales

The Indian labour movement today is fighting to protect workers’ rights, improve their implementation and even asking for new rights – the rights of the future. These rights will be the ones that in 150 years might be taken for granted. It is in this spirit of this vital movement that this newsletter collects, summarises and comments on labour news from around India and the world.

The news:

Haryana Government to not commemorate May Day from this year

BJP-led Haryana Government, which has been facing severe criticism from workers for anti-labour actions, has declared that it will not commemorate May Day as Labour Day and instead celebrate it on Vishwakarma Divas, in honour of the mythical architect of the Gods. Sugarcoating this decision, it also announced a slew of enhancements to the welfare benefits for unorganised workers.

Tamil Nadu on strike

Major opposition parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Left, enforced a state-wide bandh on April 25, demanding that the central government constitute the Cauvery River Management Board and provide adequate relief to the drought affected farmers. Central Trade Unions, barring BMS (which has only a nominal presence in Tamil Nadu), supported the call by striking work and joining protests across Tamil Nadu. Earlier on April 22, farmers suspended their protest in New Delhi till May 15. This came after the Tamil Nadu CM personally visited the protesting farmers and assured them that he will engage with the central government to provide necessary drought relief and farm loan waiver. LiveMint reported that Tamil Nadu farmers fared the worst on their rural distress index.

Coinciding with the general strike, Tamil Nadu government employees, represented by TNGEA, began an indefinite strike on April 25. Among other issues, they were demanding the roll back of the new pension scheme and re-enactment of the old scheme. The strike was withdrawn the next day following assurances from the state government.

Azim Premji Foundation finds teacher absenteeism is a “false narrative”

Anurag Behar, CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation, writes in Livemint, “People easily talk of absenteeism ranging from 25- 50%. This matter has such grip over the popular imagination that it is often talked of as the single biggest problem in the Indian school education. Many of our policy-makers tend to believe in and feed this narrative, and use it to inform policy action. With all our experience, across years, with hundreds of thousands of teachers, we have never seen absenteeism rates even close to the numbers that are often talked of.” Their study found that the rates of absenteeism were comparable to other sectors.

Job growth quadruples during demonetisation

Yet another perplexing revelation of Indian economy under demonetisation. A quarterly survey by the Labour Bureau finds that permanent job growth quadrupled in the October – December quarter over the previous three months. Growth in formal jobs was seen at 1.22 lakhs during the peak demonetisation period as against a dismal increase of 32,000 in the 3 months prior to October. However, the survey does record the fall of contractual jobs by 1.52 lakhs.

While there are doubts regarding the data and sampling methods, an article by SIndhu Bhattacharya in FirstPost questions the shrinking employment growth during the tenure of the present government.

Sri Lanka-India oil deal faces workers’ ire

Workers of State-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation struck work on April 24 against a proposed deal between India and Sri Lanka to upgrade and maintain oil storage tanks in Trincomalee. The strike, which had a crippling effect on transport, forced the Sri Lankan government to assure that no binding deals will be made with India without consultation with the workers. The petroleum workers were also against the joint venture with China to set up a new refinery. They fear the loss of national sovereignty if national assets are placed under the management of powerful neighbouring nations. Yet on April 28, India and Sri Lanka signed an MoU on joint investments in energy, ports and industrial zones. The government, downplaying the importance, maintained that it was only a ‘road map’ for future investments.