Chennai-Triumph of Labour-MayDay
The Triumph of Labour statue in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

100 years of May Day: 5 recent trends that impact workers in a big way

For workers and the labour movements around the world, May 1 (known as May Day), holds great significance as a day of remembrance and celebration. Also referred to as Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day, it is commemorated in numerous countries, symbolizing the historic struggles and achievements made by the working class. It serves as a reminder of the enduring fight for labour rights and social justice.

The roots of May Day trace back to 1889, when an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions proclaimed May 1 as a day dedicated to supporting workers. This date was chosen in honour of the Haymarket Riot that took place in Chicago in 1886, during which workers fought for better working conditions and the establishment of an eight-hour workday. The event had a profound impact on the labour movement and inspired the global recognition of May Day.

In the United States and Canada, a similar occasion known as Labour Day is observed. However, due to the socialist associations tied to Workers’ Day, US President Grover Cleveland signed legislation in 1894 to officially establish Labour Day as a national holiday. It was designated to be celebrated on the first Monday of September, aligning with existing state-level Labour Day celebrations. Canada followed suit shortly thereafter, adopting a similar approach to honour the contributions and achievements of workers.

A day of solidarity for labour movement

While Labour Day serves as a significant tribute to workers in the United States and Canada, May Day continues to hold its place as an internationally recognized day of solidarity for the labour movement. It serves as a reminder of the struggles and victories that have shaped the rights and conditions of workers worldwide. May 1 stands as a testament to the ongoing pursuit of fair labour practices, social equality, and the quest for a better future for all workers.

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Despite the waning significance of May Day celebrations in some parts of the world, the holiday remains a crucial observance for workers globally. In the late 20th century, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline of communist governments in Eastern Europe, grand-scale May Day commemorations in that region lost their importance. Nonetheless, in numerous countries, May 1 is recognized as a public holiday, and people celebrate the day with festive gatherings and picnics. Additionally, it serves as an occasion for demonstrations and rallies, where workers unite to advocate for better working conditions, wages, and benefits.

Although the form and scale of May Day celebrations may have evolved over the years, its core values and principles remain unwavering. It continues to be a day that honours and celebrates the contributions of workers while emphasizing the need for continued progress towards a more equitable society.

The Chennai connection: First May Day celebration

The city of Chennai is a bustling metropolis that is steeped in history. Its streets are filled with a vibrant energy that reflects the diverse cultures and traditions that have shaped its past. One such piece of history can be found on Beach Road. Many do not know that the Port Trust wall and suburban tracks that lie between the beach and the Madras High Court hide a fascinating story. The sands between the court and the Bay of Bengal, known as High Court Beach, had hosted the first May Day celebration in India a century ago.

It was on May 1, 1923, that workers from across the city belonging to Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, tramways, and the sanitary staff attended a meeting organized by trade union leader M. Singaravelu. The meeting was held to promote the welfare of labourers and farmers and marked the launch of the ‘Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan,’ two years before the Communist Party of India was formed.

During the meeting, several resolutions were passed, including the declaration of May 1 as an annual working-class holiday. This followed from May 1 being declared as May Day in support of workers’ protests in Chicago in 1886. The meeting also demanded an eight-hour workday and included an action programme that focused on improving housing conditions, providing free medical checkups, and instituting four months of paid maternity leave for working women. Other demands included state insurance against accidents, assistance for old age and ill health, and unemployment, provident funds for workers, among others. The party also sought to abolish the sardar system in workplaces, protect workers from zamindars, provide free irrigation, and abolish the dowry system. Additionally, the party aimed to secure voting rights for all and free and compulsory education for all until the age of 16.

Tamil Nadu: Stalin withdraws Factories Amendment Bill on May Day

Singaravelu also organized a second meeting on the same day at Triplicane Beach, which was attended by many freedom fighters, including Subramanya Siva. Singaravelu’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as M. N. Roy noted in his Vanguard of Indian Independence journal dated June 15, 1923, “Two mass meetings were held in Madras, where the grievances of workers formed the theme of the addresses… The audience was composed of workers and peasants, and speeches were made in vernacular so that everything was understood by them. The meetings were largely attended.”

Twelve-hour workday gains ground

The issue of 12-hour workdays in India has gained ground in recent years, with some states beginning to implement it despite concerns from labour rights activists. States such as Karnataka have adopted it, citing the need to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and boost economic growth. In February this year, the Karnataka legislature amended the Factories Act of 1948 to permit industries in the state to increase the daily working hours for labour up to 12 hours while maintaining the maximum weekly work hours at 48.

The move has drawn criticism from various quarters, including trade unions and workers’ rights organizations, who argue that longer work hours put undue strain on employees and can lead to a host of physical and mental health problems. On February 24, the Factories (Karnataka Amendment) Bill, 2023, was passed without a debate in the Legislative Assembly in the Legislative Council amid a walkout by the Congress and JD(S) MLS, and even a member of the BJP.

Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, has decided to suspend the implementation of a bill that would have allowed a 12-hour workday, in contrast to the mandatory eight hours, at factories within the state. Chief Minister M K Stalin has stated that the decision was based on the feedback received from various trade union representatives and political parties regarding the bill passed in the Assembly on April 21.

The trend towards 12-hour workdays is driven by the desire to increase productivity and profitability. Employers argue that longer shifts result in higher output, which in turn leads to increased revenue and job creation. In addition, the three-day weekend that comes with a 12-hour shift system is seen as a perk that can help attract and retain workers in an increasingly competitive job market. However, critics argue that these benefits come at a significant cost to workers, who are forced to work longer hours for the same pay and are at risk of burnout, stress, and other health issues.

The debate over 12-hour workdays is not new, and has been raging in various countries for decades. While some argue that longer shifts are necessary to remain competitive in a global economy, others believe that such practices are exploitative and harmful to workers. In India, the issue is complicated by the vast disparity in labour laws and regulations across different states, which can lead to a race to the bottom in terms of worker protections and rights.

Watch: May Day: Do Indian labourers and daily wagers know about the day celebrating their rights?

Ultimately, the decision to implement 12-hour workdays will depend on a variety of factors, including the needs and priorities of individual states, the views of employers and workers, and the broader economic and social context.

Gig workforce continues to grow, but lacks Union representation, job security

In India, the gig workforce consists of over 15 million workers employed in various industries such as software, shared services, and professional services. The gig workforce is expected to expand to 23.5 million workers by 2029-30. While the gig economy is more prevalent among blue-collar jobs, there is an emerging demand for gig workers in white-collar jobs such as project-specific consultants, salespeople, web designers, content writers, and software developers. The gig economy has the potential to provide up to 90 million jobs in non-farm sectors in the country, contributing 1.25% to the GDP over the long term.

The gig workforce, however, is characterized by a lack of union representation, limited job security, and inadequate worker benefits and regulatory coverage. The absence of union protection and collective bargaining power leaves gig workers vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment by employers, while the lack of job security can make it difficult for them to plan for the future. Additionally, gig workers typically do not receive traditional employee benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, or retirement plans, which can have long-term consequences for their financial stability and wellbeing. Due to the nature of their work, they are often not covered by traditional labour laws and regulations that protect employees from unfair treatment or discrimination.

As the gig economy continues to grow, policymakers and industry leaders must work to address these issues and ensure that gig workers are afforded the same protections and benefits as traditional employees. This may involve implementing new regulations and policies that address the unique needs of gig workers or creating new forms of collective representation that enable gig workers to organize and advocate for their rights.

Increase in direct and indirect taxes to impact businesses, consumers

There has seen a significant increase in direct and indirect taxes since the financial year 2020-21. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Indian economy, with many businesses facing unprecedented challenges and millions of people losing their jobs. One of the ways the government has sought to address the resulting revenue shortfall is by increasing its reliance on indirect taxes.

Since the financial year 2020-21, which was the first to be fully impacted by the pandemic, the share of indirect taxes in the Indian government’s total tax collection has risen above 50 percent. This means that more than half of the government’s tax revenue now comes from indirect taxes such as Goods and Services Tax (GST), rather than from direct taxes

In the current financial year, the Centre has announced an increase in both direct and indirect taxes. The Budget documents for 2023-24 state that for every rupee in the government coffer, 58 paise will come from direct and indirect taxes. The Union Budget, presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, reveals that GST will contribute 17 paise in every rupee of revenue, while corporation tax will account for 15 paise.  The increase in taxes may impact businesses and consumers alike, as they will have to bear the additional burden of the increased taxes.

Automation brings new jobs, but only for niche skill sets

Automation in India has been on the rise in recent years, with many industries turning to technology to streamline their operations and increase efficiency. This trend has been driven by factors such as the availability of skilled labor, advances in technology, and a need to reduce costs.

Also read: India sees unusually wet May Day: What’s causing this countrywide rainfall?

While automation may create jobs, these are likely to require niche skill sets that most workers will not have access to. The use of artificial intelligence in businesses is becoming increasingly widespread, with applications such as streamlining job processes and aggregating business data. However, the benefits of automation are not evenly distributed, and many workers may find themselves unable to access the new job opportunities that arise as a result of automation.

Automation has the potential to improve productivity and efficiency, but it may also lead to job displacement and exacerbate existing inequalities in the workforce. As automation continues to grow, policymakers and business leaders must work to ensure that workers are provided with the training and support they need in order to adapt to the changing job market and benefit from the new opportunities that emerge.

The growing rich-poor divide

The widening gap between the rich and the poor in India is an indication that over 100 years, very little has changed on the ground in India. Despite technological advancements, economic growth, and social reform movements, the divide between the haves and have-nots remains vast and seemingly insurmountable. This has been exemplified by the success of prominent business magnates such as Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, whose personal fortunes have grown significantly in recent years.

The rise of these business magnates has also highlighted the challenges faced by many ordinary Indians, with high levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. A 2022 report by Oxfam has revealed that India’s top 1% owned over 40.5% of the country’s total wealth, while the number of billionaires increased from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022. The report also stated that the poor in India are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Oxfam urged FM to impose a wealth tax on the ultra-rich to address this “shocking” inequality. The report, titled “Survival of The Richest,” was released during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and exposed the vast wealth gap in India. The report highlighted that only 3% of the wealth created in India from 2012 to 2021 had trickled down to the bottom 50% of the population, while more than 40% went to just 1% of the population.

The situation calls for a comprehensive approach to address the root causes of income inequality, including education, employment opportunities, social safety nets, and equitable taxation policies. Without meaningful action, the country risks perpetuating a system where a select few enjoy enormous wealth while the vast majority struggles to make ends meet.

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