Workers of the world
Labour Day is commemorated on May 1 in honour of the martyrs of the Hay Market massacre in Chicago in 1886, who gave their lives fighting for workers’ rights. Now after a century and quarter later there is still need to continue that struggle. Progress was made in the west
Labour Day is commemorated on May 1 in honour of the martyrs of the Hay Market massacre in Chicago in 1886, who gave their lives fighting for workers’ rights. Now after a century and quarter later there is still need to continue that struggle.
Progress was made in the west in the first half of the 20th century, when after a long and hard labour movement workers won an eight-hour work day, healthcare and social security benefits, unemployment compensation, minimum wage and various other concessions to make their life somewhat easier. But for this they had to go on strike, come on to the streets, endure police brutality, spend time in jail, lose their jobs, and even face the death penalty. Countless un-named workers participated in this struggle and contributed to these achievements.
However, with the fragmentation of the USSR the threat of communism faded away resulting in regression of labour rights and a worsening of the conditions of the working class. Adding insult to injury, unhindered globalisation of capital and the push for a neoliberal agenda further eroded working class’ influence worldwide.
Austerity measures and ‘structural adjustment programmes’ imposed by the IMF and the World Bank resulted in a downward trend for wages, increased unemployment, and reduced governments’ spending on social services, increasing poverty levels and reducing living standards of working class. The fact is that unopposed capital has played havoc with working class lives all over the world.
In countries like Pakistan situation is much worse. In every industry, every factory, every field, every home, every office, and every workplace workers are struggling to simply survive. Minimum wage is a cruel joke by the ruling class on the workers, but even that is not implemented. To expect a family of six or eight to live on Rs12,000 a month (and even less in many cases) is tantamount to condemning them to a life of poverty where children cannot go to school, adults have no healthcare, and the elderly are deprived of social security.
With rampant unemployment, contractors lure the poor to far-off locations with promises of gainful employment and a rosy picture of a better life for their families. But when workers arrive at the job, there are subjected to the worst kind of exploitation. Two million people live in virtual slavery. There are daily incidents of workplace deaths and injuries, but they are hidden in small fonts somewhere in the inside pages of newspapers, if at all reported.
The media is so obsessed with sensationalisation that it does not consider this worthy of even a mention. Workers being killed in mines due to blasts or collapse is a common occurrence. Building fires have killed many. Death from electrocution and many such incidents is written off as an act of fate. Investment in modern equipment, safety gears, and proper workers training will reduce these ‘accidents’ but to do so is contrary to the interests of the mine, factory, or business owners. Stories of house servants, especially minor children, being beaten and tortured is a regular feature of daily news.
All of the above does not take into account the toll these horrible working conditions take on workers’ health. Clouded vision, damaged lungs, bowed backs, deformed joints, many skin diseases and other disabilities render them crippled for life and a financial burden on family and society. None of this is enough to move the ruling class.
In the past several decades labour’s influence has systematically eroded through government policies, banning of unions, restricting their bargaining power, sidelining or co-opting of labour leaders. Those who did not submit to power were jailed, tortured and even killed. Historically it is the leftists who have championed workers’ causes; and leftist leaders have also been methodically targeted and eliminated.
There is a need to revive leftist politics and genuine unionism. At present less than two percent of workers in Pakistan are part of any union. Many do not realise the importance of unions, others are afraid to become part of them, and yet others have been disillusioned with unions due to the selfishness and opportunism of union leaders and their alliances with the ruling class.
But we must be realistic. The job of workers today is perhaps much more difficult than that facing those in Chicago in the late 19th century. Capitalism is much stronger and organised now. The world is ensnared in a web of financial interests, banking industry, and business monopolies, not to mention their collusion with media moguls who control information and spread disinformation. This is very obvious from how little workers’ issues are covered and how much their problems ignored. One can see this by the meagre amount of airtime devoted to May Day rallies across countries.
Thus there is an urgent need for a strong, united, organised, well planned and well resourced international workers movement. This is a tall order, and the first step in this direction is to raise the socio-political awareness of workers. This will also help keep labour leaders honest and true to workers’ causes. Then there is a need to promote unity among them so they can rise above religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal, clan and national divisions.
It is also important to connect all workers as well as different resistance movements around the world since at the heart of all these issues is the grip of capitalism on world resources and its influence on governments across the board.
It is only through such a grand alliance that a better world is possible. Is this just a utopian dream? No. But there are no miracles; all this will need a long-term strategy, hard work, and sincere leadership. There was a time when the monarch’s word was word of God. If his grip could be broken, so can capitalism’s.