Despite the day being set apart for the workers, in Sri Lanka it is more a political event to which political parties attach great importance. Political parties utilise the day to show their strength whilst the workpeople exhibit their disunity and weakness. Yet the significance of May Day cannot be underscored.
The Industrial Revolution, in its wake brought in hopeless working conditions, low pay and unrestricted working hours. Men, women and children were kept on their feet for 12-13 hours a day under inhuman conditions. Those who had land and capital prospered whilst the poor were forced to a wretched life.
Human rights and dignity were not for the workpeople. The belief at the time, among the rich was that the poor had to be kept in poverty and half-starved to get them to work.
The workers were prevented from organising themselves and demanding better working conditions. Trade Union activity was considered as conspiracies by law. Workers engaged in trade union work were summarily prosecuted and imprisoned.
There was no job security. Hire and fire basis was in operation.
The competition among the employees (industrialists) at the time was such that even those who recognised the necessity to improve working conditions and shorter working hours, did not venture to introduce favourable working conditions for fear of being overtaken by their unscrupulous competitors. The only aim of the employee was to accumulate more money by maximising profits.
That was possible only by maintaining poor working conditions, low pay and long working hours. And that was what the workpeople had to put up with.
It is noteworthy that at that time the state backed the rich industrialists and prevented the workers from organising themselves.
Any attempt to form a trade union resulted in Police raids, harassment, prosecution and imprisonment.
There was interdependence and cooperation between the politicians and the industrialists and this set up helped the rich to prevent the workpeople from asserting their rights.
This situation was inevitable as private enterprise then was the only economic rallying point and the employers were powerful financially and hence politically too.
The suppression of workers’ rights and continuance of poverty paved the way for the emergence of the far left-communism. Communism in turn enslaved the workers and kept them in bondage.
Communism is no more. But if the reasons that led to the emergence of Communism are not removed, the resurgence of more violent forms of ideology is inevitable.
Hence far right Capitalism that encourages suppression or workers’ rights and amassing of wealth by the few rich, should similarly be thrown out. However, this appears to be a far cry.
The open economy and multi-nationals have brought in an economy in favour of the rich. As a result the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened, unemployment increased and poverty extended. This inequality of economic standards is a social problemAn injustice in the relations between capital and labour, landlords and tenants and employers and employees. This has to be overcome.
On the other hand, the financial crisis, unemployment and poverty have resulted in the workpeople being made to bear the burden and make sacrifices.
Trade Unions are under attack for the inability to solve these problems, whilst the rich in whose hands capital lie are increasingly relied upon to overcome the crisis. The situation as a result can become worse,.
There cannot be a strong trade union movement in a sick economy and there can be no freedom and democracy without a free and strong trade union movement.
The workers should therefore address their minds to these issues and resolve to overcome them by a united effort. The purpose of May Day will otherwise be defeated.
The observance of May Day would be in vain.