May Day or the International Workers’ Day-- the day marking the historic struggles and gains made by workers and the labour movement,- is observed in many countries today May 1. In the United States and Canada a similar observance, known as Labour Day, takes place on the first Monday of September.
Above and beyond the processions, rallies and often false promises given on May Day, the day has deep significance for the working-class people who comprise the majority in our society. Thankfully perhaps this year in Sri Lanka, the processions and rallies have been called off or severely restricted due to the third upsurge in the COVID-19 pandemic where one person is being afflicted every four minutes going by the figures given by the anti-Covid task force while the real figure may be more.
In 1889 an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers, in commemoration of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Riot. Five years later, the then U.S. President. Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labour Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official U.S. holiday in honour of workers. Canada followed suit not long afterwards.
In Europe, May 1 was historically associated with rural pagan festivals, but the original meaning of the day was gradually replaced by the modern association with the labour movement. In the Soviet Union, leaders embraced the new holiday, believing it would encourage workers in Europe and the United States to unite against capitalism.
The day became a significant holiday in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern-bloc countries, with high-profile parades, including one in Moscow’s Red Square presided over by top government and Communist Party functionaries, celebrating the worker and showcasing Soviet military might. In Germany, Labour Day became an official holiday in 1933 after the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. Ironically, Germany abolished free unions the day after establishing the holiday, virtually destroying the German labour movement.
In Sri Lanka, May Day was declared a public, bank and mercantile holiday in 1956 by the then Government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and his Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP Coalition) spearheaded by the “Boralugoda” Lion Philip Gunawardena. After Mr. Bandaranaike was shot dead by a Buddhist monk on September 26, 1959, his “weeping widow” Sirimavo was persuaded to take over the leadership of the SLFP, and it swept to victory in the July 1960 General Elections. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the executive Prime Minister from 1960 to 1964 and then again from 1970 to 1977. It was during the Bandaranaike administrations that the public service pension scheme was updated to grant a better deal to the largely underpaid public servants, their widows and orphans.
It was the Bandaranaike Government’s labour and social services minister T. B. Ilangaratne who presented the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) Bill in 1958. It was passed by the then House of Representatives and given formal assent by the then Governor-General on May 09, 1958.
According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka the EPF is the largest superannuation fund in Sri Lanka. It covers nearly 60 per cent of the workforce in the private and semi-government sectors. The concept of EPF traces back to 1947 when the Report of the Commission on Social Services headed by Sir Ivor Jennings recommended the establishment of a national provident fund, on a contributory basis. Though the necessity of a superannuation fund to provide security at the old age for non-pensionable workers was widely accepted, it took eleven years to materialise this concept.
Under the Bandaranaike administration, it was mainly minister T. B. Ilangaratne who took the initiative for the setting up of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, the People’s Bank, the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment and the Multi-purpose Cooperative Societies which provided quality, essential food items mainly to the working people at affordable prices. This was done with rations books. Today this role has been taken over by the profit-oriented private supermarkets most of which justify their role with what they call corporate social responsibility which often means little more than those words.
Love’s labour or the labour of love is never lost. While responsible and dedicated workers do their duty with honesty and integrity their employers also need to ensure that the workers are happy and content because they are looked after well and their work is recognized. Yes indeed. In most of the cases, the worker is worthy of his or her wages. In work, both the employer and the employee should benefit but since the work is not regulated, it is often the employer who benefits at the expense of the worker who struggles to maintain the family with the basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, education and a good job.