How May Day was hijacked by its very foes
A May Day rally in Colombo: Hijacked by those who oppress the working class
Political parties and trade unions in Sri Lanka have been compelled for the third consecutive year to cancel or postpone their May Day events or conduct them on a low note. In 2019, the Easter Sunday suicide bombings forced them to cancel the events, and the COVID-19 outbreak prevented them from holding any public gatherings last year (2020).
With the country facing the third wave of the COVID-19 following the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, this year too, the National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 (NOCPCO) has requested the organisers to cancel May Day rallies and processions.
Some political parties and coalitions might be happy with the situation as the rifts within them might come out if they hold rallies. Also, some parties might be unhappy since May Day is the only event that would show their existence in politics.
Earlier the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was to hold its May Day rally at the Colombo Municipal Council grounds while its ally and partner in Government, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had said it would have its rally and the procession separately.
This along with the bickering between the SLPP and the small parties in the Government such as the NFF and the PHU would have created situations unpleasant to the leaders of the Government, had the May Day rallies been allowed.
"Besides, in a context where everything is politicised to the core, even the workers including the literal proletariat - the people only own their labour, as Karl Marx described - would find it difficult to understand on which platform their rights and aspirations are really emphasised or at least they are emphasised at all anywhere"
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the party that has been holding mammoth rallies and colourful processions every year- since 1978 except during the period they had gone underground between 1983 and 1994 – had planned to hold its May Day rally at the Hyde Park Grounds with a limited crowd due to the pandemic.
However, they have finally decided on a virtual May Day event with the participation of the leaders of the party and affiliated trade unions leaders and a limited number of members.
The United National Party (UNP) and its breakaway group, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) too had changed their original plans for May Day events while some small parties also organised indoor events.
In fact one has to question the political parties in Sri Lanka and abroad if it is worth risking the lives of the people by holding even low-key events on the International Workers’ Day at a time when a deadly pandemic is taking its toll.
The question is more pertinent since the original essence and the purpose of May Day is now a forgotten subject. Sometimes many people including some of those participating in May Day rallies and processions might be of the view that May Day and the International Workers’ Day are two different days.
Besides, in a context where everything is politicised to the core, even the workers including the literal proletariat - the people only own their labour, as Karl Marx described - would find it difficult to understand on which platform their rights and aspirations are really emphasised or at least they are emphasised at all anywhere.
In fact, May Day has become a ritual devoid of original essence for political parties and trade unions. This is the day originally assigned for the working masses to get together and assert their rights irrespective of party politics.
However, in the practical sense, it has been hijacked by the suppressors of workers’ rights. If one rates the right of the political parties to commemorate the International Workers’ Day considering their performance towards the workers, he would realise that the two main parties and those parties that were in hand in glove with them in governing the country have no moral right whatsoever to celebrate the International Workers’ Day.
"One has to question the political parties in Sri Lanka and abroad if it is worth risking the lives of the people by holding even low-key events on the International Workers’ Day at a time when a deadly pandemic is taking its toll"
It is true that it was the Government led by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who represented the SLFP in the ruling coalition, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna declared May Day a statutory holiday in the country. Also, it was the same Government that established the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) for the benefit of private-sector employees. But it was during the same period that the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) was amended so that Governments can ban trade union actions by declaring any service as an essential service.
Then, during another SLFP rule under Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, the PSO was included in the Constitution in 1972 so that no future Governments could amend it without two-thirds of the Parliamentary Majority.
It has been used by almost all Governments thereafter to suppress trade union actions; the best case in point was the suppression of the 1980 July strike. During the end of her tenure, Mrs Bandaranaikes’s name was further tarnished in terms of repression by an incident where estate workers who demonstrated against the alienation of their estates in Talawakelle in 1976 were shot at and one worker named Sivan Letchumanan was killed.
Once, during President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s tenure, another regime under a coalition led by the SLFP, striking workers of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) were brought to their workplaces by force using Army personnel by Deputy Defence Minister Anurudda Ratwatte who was also the Power and Energy Minister then. This could be expected only under military rule.
Mahinda Rajapaksa who was another SLFP leader promised to introduce a “Workers’ Charter” to strengthen the rights of the workers in the country. He was the President in the country twice with two-thirds of Parliamentary power during his second term, but the Workers Charter never saw the light of the day.
Two major incidents that led to Rajapaksa’s downfall were the incidents that took place in Katunayake and Chilaw.
Roshen Chanaka, a worker attached to the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) was shot dead during a demonstration against the Government’s move to convert the EPF into a pension scheme.
In the other incident, a fisherman was shot dead in Chilaw when a group of fishermen was demonstrating demanding the price reduction of fuel. The declaration of May Day as a holiday would not offset this repressive history of the SLFP.
On the other hand, the United National Party (UNP) too has a history that could very easily counterbalance the SLFP’s past, in respect of repression against the workers of the country. Two incidents would suffice to prove the point.
Hundreds of trade unions declared a “National Day of Protest” on June 5, 1980, to protest against the spiralling cost of living and demanding a Rs. 300 monthly salary increment and a Rs. 5 allowances per each rising unit in the Cost of Living Index. A trade unionist D. Somapala was killed during demonstrations by hooligans affiliated to the UNP which was in office then.
More than 40,000 (some say it was 80,000) workers who struck work over these demands were expelled from work for good and several workers had later committed suicide. Before the strike was started the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali had threatened the strikers to be sent to
Hence, the moral right of a political party to commemorate International Workers’ Day should stem from its attitude and dedication to protect the rights of the workers in the past.