Marxism and Buddhism have had a somewhat unholy relationship in years gone by, at least in Sri Lanka. There was a period some decades ago when Marxism was the flavour of the times globally and Sri Lanka was not immune to its appeal. An unfortunate remark by its proponent, Karl Marx that “religion was the [...]


May Day: Distress slogan more appropriate


Marxism and Buddhism have had a somewhat unholy relationship in years gone by, at least in Sri Lanka. There was a period some decades ago when Marxism was the flavour of the times globally and Sri Lanka was not immune to its appeal.

An unfortunate remark by its proponent, Karl Marx that “religion was the opium of the masses” did not go down well with the established religions, and in Sri Lanka it was also inexorably linked with the establishment of local political parties.

The LSSP (Equal Society Party) had just been formed on the back of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the teachings of Leon Trotsky. The more Establishment oriented young up-and-coming politicians of Sri Lanka of the then Ceylon National Congress, however, met the radical youth head-on. To drive a wedge between the people and the Marxists, they said that these Marxists were going to dismantle the sacred Ruvanweliseya Temple in Anuradhapura and make houses for the poor with the bricks.

So, when some trade unions, which continue to owe their allegiance to the fading Marxist ideology defiantly pledged to ignore the Government diktat to postpone the traditional May Day (May 1) till tomorrow (May 7) because it clashed with the Vesak celebrations, their move did not get the public sympathy they expected.

The fact that the trade union movement is now, like most other aspects of the socio-economic life of the country taken over by political parties is a major factor in May Day being postponed without a whimper. These party affiliated trade unions know only too well the public mood and agreed to hold their parades tomorrow. The trappings that Vesak offers clearly outshine what the May Day rallies have in store.

Those trade unions that tried to defy the Government call also entertain a misconception about May 1st being sacrosanct to the workers. Their rallying call was that they will not betray the day that is dedicated to commemorating the struggle that saw the legalising of the eight-hour work day.

As every trade unionist knows, it was in 1884 in Chicago, USA that workers banded together and demanded an 8-hour work day after May 1, 1885. When it was not granted, a demonstration the next year turned violent and indiscriminate police fire killed several. Red became the colour of the workers symbolising the blood that was spilled and the dead became known as the ‘Haymarket Martyrs’. Today, the United States, where it all began, marks this historic event in September as Labour Day. So much for May 1 being so sacrosanct.

As the political parties bow to the wishes of the wider population and hold their rallies tomorrow, it is going to be another year of the workers marching to different drums; not a case of solidarity, but a case of ‘workers of the world divide’ – not unite. This day in honour of the working class, in many countries including Sri Lanka brings home the stark reality that there is a sizeable section of the adult population who do not belong to the working class because they are without work.

The Central Bank’s official statistics put the current unemployed figure at 4.2 per cent of the adult population. The Census and Statistics Department gives it as 4.0 per cent. These are official data and therefore do not take into account the number unregistered as well as those under-employed — i.e, those doing menial jobs merely to eke out a living rather than what they are best suited to do. On the other hand, we find some, like Municipal workers who clock-in and no sooner clock-out doing two jobs, and those security guards who sleep at night on the job and have a day job as well.

Each year, this occasion also brings to focus, alas only to be soon forgotten, the hundreds and thousands of Sri Lanka workers abroad. Even the recent Cabinet reshuffle did not recognise their importance. While there are dedicated ministries for Agriculture and Social Empowerment — for those who live below the poverty line — as there should be, and the Cabinet has a record number of ministers, there’s no dedicated minister for this group who bring US dollars seven billion into the country every year and help prop up the Treasury.

The portfolio of Foreign Employment has been lumped with the Ministry of Telecommunications and IT. Talk of the ‘scientific’ Cabinet portfolio arrangement. Agriculture and Social Empowerment (Samurdhi benefits) have political significance. Foreign employment does not because workers abroad have no vote. They are, in effect, disenfranchised and inconsequential to the politicians.

Successive Governments have shown ‘stepmotherly’ treatment to the interests of foreign workers, only interested in the trillion rupees they bring into the country. There have been repeated calls for the strengthening of Lankan missions abroad, especially in the Gulf countries of West Asia where thousands of Sri Lankan women face numerous issues in their working and living conditions. A recent incident in Kuwait should be a lesson for Sri Lanka.

The Philippine Government announced a permanent ban on Filipinos going to Kuwait after a row erupted over Kuwait’s deportation of the Filipino ambassador. The ambassador and his staff videoed houses where Filipino housemaids were being ill-treated following the discovery of a Filipino maid’s body in her employer’s freezer. The Kuwaiti Government accused the ambassador of interfering in its sovereignty though conduct unbecoming of a diplomat may have been more to the point.

But the Manila Government did not take the deportation lightly. The ban came despite foreign remittances amounting 10 percent of the Philippine economy. Kuwait quickly recanted and moved to pacify the authorities in Manila to see the ban did not take effect. The question is whether any Sri Lankan Government has what it takes to do what the Philippine Administration did.

There is the 12-member state Colombo Process which brings together the providers and the recipients of migrant labour to the Gulf region to protect these workers from exploitative practices in recruitment and employment. This year’s UN agency ILO theme “the 3 D’s” (Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous) jobs, which account for millions of deaths while in employment is no less relevant to migrant workers than to any other category of workers in blue collar jobs.

As political parties parade the streets tomorrow shouting slogans, they must spare a thought for their absent comrades toiling away in inhospitable climes. And the Government, on whom the ultimate responsibility rests needs to do more for them. A good start could be for the Foreign Ministry to send its new recruits to Sri Lankan missions in the Gulf to see to the welfare of Sri Lankan workers abroad.

Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
Comments should be within 80 words. *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.