For the first time since 1889, when May 1 was declared as the day of international solidarity of working class, or May Day, this year’s observance will be the most muted. Over 4.5 billion people across the globe are currently living under some kind of restrictions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing gatherings.
Even in places where such restrictions have been somewhat eased, or are not needed yet, there is pervasive fear of the novel coronavirus. In India, all major trade unions have called for observance within restrictions, which means people will unfurl flags outside their homes only, and hold placards or other messages.
But, this is ironic because in reality, this May Day 2020 is marked by two unique features. One is that the working class is facing an unprecedented attack on their lives and livelihoods across the world. The other is an equally unprecedented solidarity between workers that has been forged in these times.
Savage Attack on Working Class
Take India as an example. The economy was already reeling under a devastating slowdown that had caused widespread job losses, fall in earnings, decline in consumption expenditure and sustained high levels of joblessness. This had caused massive protests, even as the NarendraModigovernment had displayed its discredited neoliberal solutions to deal with the economic disaster. These measures included cutting corporate tax, privatising public sector units, opening up more sectors of economy to predatory foreign capital, and changing labour laws to further intensify exploitation of workers. These measures, predictably, further worsened the situation.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed over the horizon and started spreading rapidly across the world. Within four months, it has infected over 3.2 million people in practically every country, and tens of thousands have died. The Modi government twiddled its thumbs for over 50 days since the first case was reported in India on January 30, and then, out of the blue, they suddenly announced a countrywide lockdown from March 25.
Under pressure from corporate sections, but also acutely aware of the political fallout, the government declared that wages must be paid for the lockdown period and no worker should be thrown out of the job. But, this was only on paper because the exact opposite happened – almost uniformly across the country, lakhs of workers were dismissed from service, and wages were cut or withheld completely. This was the most naked and devastating attack on workers – but that was not all.
Again, under pressure from corporate sections, the Modi government has been toying with the idea of pushing through critical labour law changes that will completely tilt the balance in favour of employers, leaving hapless workers at their mercy. These include an as yet unconfirmed proposal to increase working day to 12 hours instead of the current 8 hours (already being adopted in some states), freeze the Dearness Allowance (DA) of government employees and pensioners, cut the interest rate on provident fund deposits, fast-track Labour Codes which will do away with several protective measures that existed till now, and so on.
On the other side, diverse concessions continue to be doled out to corporates in these “difficult times” which include relaxation in tax payments, setting up of funds to bail out specific sectors, easing credit from banks, write-offs etc.
This capsule of the way India’s government is dealing with workers during the pandemic can be seen being repeated across the world in varying degrees. The difference between the advanced countries and India is that they mostly have some form of social security – unemployment benefits, medical cover, pensions etc. – while in India, such coverage is limited to a minuscule 7-8% of the workforce.
The rest of the vast workforce is in the informal sector which is currently facing an unimaginable nightmare, with their very lives at stake. They are forced to depend on charity handouts from NGOs and government agencies, merely to survive. This is the way the Modi government has brought the working class to its knees – though how long this will last, is uncertain.
Workers as Expendable Pawns
Mention must be made here of another aspect: the brazen use of workers as expendable pawns in the fight against the virus. The vast army of heathcare and para medical personnel in Indiais currentlyon the frontline in containing the virus. Lakhs of ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and anganwadi workers are daily meeting people in villages and, at the risk of exposure, continuing to assist them.
Nurses, other health personnel in hospitals are also working at great risk. The same applies to sanitation workers, and other essential service providers. Despite being extolled by Modi and the media, in reality most of them are working without proper protection. The government’s tawdry efforts to procure PPE or personal protective equipment and ensure that every health worker wears these,reveals the same callous attitude toward workers and employees as in its other policies.
This is also reflected in the proposal to open industries in certain parts, under pressure from corporate owners. There is no stringent procedure to ensure that such workers will work safely, without getting exposed to the virus. Corporate honchos and government both know that workers themselves are in no position to bargain, having no savings to carry them through this period. And, the promise of full wages for lockdown period was always dead ab initio.
Growing Solidarity Among Workers
On this May Day, as one looks at the pandemic-related crisis, there is a ray of hope and energy too that is emanating from the struggling workers. It lies in a sense of solidarity and care for each other, and the unity against common oppressors.
After the Modi government’s lockdown announcement, suddenly there was a flood of workers on the streets as lakhs of migrant workers tried to flee back home, since they had no money, no jobs, and no place to stay.
This was just the tip of the iceberg: there were lakhs more who had to remain home but were in the same condition. These included a whole range of workers from rag pickers and informal sector service providers to factory workers or shop/office employees. Many of the most vulnerable sections were on the verge of starvation within days.
But it is here that the solidarity of workers came to the fore. For instance, a major trade union, CITU, called for providing immediate relief material to such vulnerable workers. The response was “an eye-opener” said a CITU leader. An estimated Rs.1 crore was collected across the country within days and it was immediately used to buy rice, pulses, salt, cooking oil etc. and distributed to workers families in every state of the country. Many from the middle class too provided donations in cash and kind for this, but thousands of workers contributed small amounts to help their brothers and sisters in distress.
This solidarity and growing sense of unity of all workers was also visible in the protest day – the first ever – called for on April 21, against the government’s policies of neglect of workers, demanding ration, wages, jobs and safety gear.
Similar instances from around the world – in different forms, in different ways – show that the workers see the solidarity that natural exists between them and others. They also realise that in this pandemic, class is ranged against class – the rich and propertied are living and dealing with the pandemic in one way, the workers and peasants in another way.
So, on this May Day 2020, workers around the world will mark an extremely difficult time in their lives, but also remember and assert their growing unity and solidarity.