May Day came and went, and as always, it was a political show of strength with workers of the world divided and what was meant to be their day overshadowed by politicians. May Day is not even celebrated in May in the country where it was first declared – the United States, which instead marks Labour [...]


The forgotten workers of May Day


May Day came and went, and as always, it was a political show of strength with workers of the world divided and what was meant to be their day overshadowed by politicians. May Day is not even celebrated in May in the country where it was first declared – the United States, which instead marks Labour Day in September with a holiday just to relax. In Russia, it is a case of flexing military muscle on May Day.

Around the world there are new fears among the working class that labour is being largely edged out by emerging new factors. In the industrial West, there is a powerful thrust to sideline labour due to cost factors, seek cheap labour in the economically developing countries and prioritise ‘collective bargaining’, between nation-states, once a tool of the working class, through international trade organisations like the WTO (World Trade Organisation), and international trade agreements like TRIPS. In this way economically powerful countries can maintain the status quo by pressuring economically weaker countries to adhere to the agenda scripted by them. At least that is how some see it.

If a country does not adhere to these international trade agreements it faces the consequences by way of sanctions and embargoes. Technology, on the other hand, computers and innovative applications and machines form the other factor that is sidetracking the importance of traditional labour as we have known it. Countless numbers of workers are being laid off and replaced by machines. There is availability of ‘cheap labour’ in newly emerging economies like China and India when strictly manual work is required, but little bargaining power.

Trade union membership in the industrial countries is falling as capital — banks and fund companies take control of the commanding heights of the economy. Where labour is required, recruitment agencies employing ‘Temps’ — temporary workers — for specific projects rule the roost. Even in Japan, where once people had a ‘job for life’ there is a marked shift from that culture and workers are doing ‘Temp’ jobs instead.

The trade union movement in Sri Lanka is also slipping into oblivion, slowly but surely, swamped by party politics. The Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) lost its charismatic leader of yesteryear, and even other quasi-political unions like the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) which were once potent unions in their own right have given way to party politics.

The labour tribunals set up when the Left Movement in the country left its mark on the local political landscape continue to safeguard the rights of employees, sometimes to absurd levels, but otherwise workers are generally left in the lurch and at the mercy of governments and benevolent employers in largely market-driven economic systems.

The United National Party (UNP), buoyed by the presence of a crowd unseen at their May Day rallies in recent times is already predicting victory at a forthcoming Parliamentary election. But is it making the same mistake its predecessors made? Judging public support by crowds transported to their rally with the lure of fish buns, arrack and a joy ride; the one difference being – and a significant difference at that – the state-owned buses were paid for by the party and not by the public as was the case in previous years. Yet, it was the same mistake to mimic the previous regime in hauling crowds for meetings, enjoying a feel-good factor and kidding oneself that electoral victory is nigh.

Other parties also made May Day an occasion to make a statement about their own political strength in the country that has been made to expect an election round the corner. There was, however, nary a word about the rights of the working class, nor about two forgotten groups on a May Day — the hundreds of unemployed and the hundreds of thousands Sri Lankan workers overseas. Politicians from every conceivable platform mouthed platitudes about good governance, bad governance, the cost of living, development and by-the-way, workers’ rights, but there was next to nothing about the unemployed and the overseas worker. The statistics speak for themselves. According to the 2014 Central Bank annual report released recently, the official registered unemployed figure stands at 381,000 with a total workforce of 8.8 million; more than four people out of every 100 who are willing to work have no job in this country. This, of course, is only an official figure of people who have registered themselves for work, not the horde of young people, some educated some not, who have not registered for work, but are still on the look-out for jobs. Nor does it include those under-employed.

Despite all the boasts by the previous Government that its development projects propelled employment, the Central Bank’s figures for 2014 show that employment rose by a mere 0.1 per cent compared to 2013. Many young people now opt for casual labour on a daily paid basis without the rigours of regular employment due to low wages that do not often meet their travelling costs, the price of the lunch packet and other expenses when far away from the security of home.

A day dedicated to them – the unemployed might be worth considering but that too would be hijacked by political parties.The second category is the overseas worker. According to the Central Bank report of 2014 their total remittances to Sri Lanka have now reached a fantastic USD 7 billion which at current conversion rates is equivalent to Rs. 932 billion. This is the highest amount sent by Sri Lankans overseas, the bulk of which is from those working in the steaming summer heat and the bitter winter nights of Arabia; those who help Sri Lankans at home to purchase their imported food items, fuel and medicines, but alas, have no say in electing their Government.

Several organisations and political parties have been making a vain attempt for a decade to give them voting rights. At the last Presidential election, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) asked the Elections Commissioner to provide for this, but he pleaded “practical difficulties”. Usually, a country’s foreign embassies act as the Returning Officer for such a poll, but imagine a Sri Lankan in the US casting his vote at the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington and the Returning Officer being the cousin of the President, and all the embassy staff political appointees of the ruling party!

An advanced democracy like Sri Lanka, with a history of elections since 1931, in effect, has dis-enfranchised over a million would-be voters because of systemic deficiencies. Another major factor insofar as Sri Lankan workers overseas are concerned is the lack of sympathy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for counselling support for the female workers who make up half the workforce in those countries.

The lack of lady diplomats being posted to these stations has often been highlighted and it is time the new Minister took note of the insufficient moral support Sri Lanka’s women workers have in these faraway lands. These are the shortcomings the Government now immersed in electoral reforms at home must not overlook as they reflect on May Day and the rights of the working class.

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