May Day: Spirit and reality
THE origin of International Labour Day -- May Day -- can be traced back to Philadelphia in December 1869, where a group of nine tailors who called themselves "Knights of Labour" established a labour organisation. The Knights of Labour could successfully forge strong solidarity among the working classes all over the world by upholding its motto "an injury to one is the concern of all."
As the Industrial Revolution took hold of the American nation, the average worker in the 1800s worked for twelve-hours a day and seven days a week to fulfill his basic needs. Children also worked, as they provided cheap labour. Because of the long hours and terrible working conditions, American unions voiced their demands for a better way of life.
The Knights of Labour attempted to further its idealistic aims -- an eight-work-hour day, the abolition of child labour, equal pay, etc. The Knights attempted to address these issues by organising demonstration/rallies, strikes and other modes of movement for several years. On many occasions it succeeded in having the demands fulfilled.
On May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket of Chicago, a rally patronised by this organisation had a confrontation with the police. Consequently, seven police officers and an unknown number of civilians were killed. For this incident, eight labour leaders were tried, of whom four were convicted to death and one committed suicide. The Haymarket affair is considered to have influenced the observance of May Day by workers.
The major spirit of May Day lies in the establishment of the basic rights of the working class. After about 140 years of awakening of the working class about their basic rights, now is the high time to assess the extent of progress of the contemporary world in this regard.
If we objectively analyse the international labour market, correlating the overall socio-economic and cultural advancement of the world, then the outcome will definitely not be an optimistic one. For instance, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) prescribed eight-hour working day has not yet been truly enforced in many sectors of employment worldwide.
In fact, the elongated working day -- stretching up to twelve hours or even longer -- is still followed in many of the formal sectors, especially in the developing countries which have the lion's share of the world's working class.
Just consider the scenario of the readymade garments (RMG) sector in Bangladesh, where more than three million workers are employed, of whom about 90 percent are women from the lower strata of the society. According to a report of the National Garments Workers Federation, in most cases, workers in the garments factories are forced to work 14 to 16 hours per day, and even sometimes the whole night. Overtime work is compulsory.
Though the law of the land prohibits engaging women workers after 8:00 pm, in most cases the owners of the garments factories do not care about this. Although the federation has suggested a minimum monthly wage of Tk.2,117 per month, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has fixed it at Tk.1662.50, but most of the garment factories have not implemented even this minimum wage. This can be a classic example of extracting absolute surplus value.
About creation of surplus value, Karl Marx noted: "The prolongation of the working-day beyond the point at which the labourer would have produced just an equivalent for the value of his labour-power, and the appropriation of that surplus-labour by capital, this is production of absolute surplus-value. It forms the general groundwork of the capitalist system…. (Karl Marx, Vol 1, Part 5, chapter 1)."
Contrary to ILO conventions, the garment industry employs child labourers, restricts the right to organise trade unions, fails to provide the workers with healthy working atmospheres, and deprives the workers in various ways. However, this is not a unique scenario in Bangladesh.
In fact, the overall scenario of the labour-intensive employment sectors, be it the electronic or toy factories in China or Hong Kong, or construction industries in the Middle East, or the agriculture sector in Malaysia, is more or less the same in the developing countries.
The above is the case of the so-called blue-collar jobs. What about the other end -- the white-collar jobs? Though, apparently, the overall condition of the employment in white- collar jobs has improved, an in-depth analysis will reveal signs of exploitation by the corporate culture of neo-capitalism.
To assert this, we can analyse the employment scenario in the private banking sector in Bangladesh. Since the legalisation of private banks in the early 1980s, the growth rate of this sector has been very high compared with other service sectors. This was possible because of exploitation of the employees in this sector. Elongated office hours have been marked in this sector, too.
Though, legally, this sector is bound to follow an eight-hour working day (from 10 am to 6pm), in practice most of the banks on average engage their employees from 10 to 12 hour a day. Moreover, in addition to the discharge of the routine duties, each officer in private banks has to do some marketing by collecting deposits from the clients. In return, whatever the employees get as remuneration is peanuts compared to their contribution.
As the job market in the country is small and the unemployment rate is very high, most employees of the banks do not dare protest against such exploitation. So, in essence, it can be postulated that the creation of surplus value by exploiting the employees in this sector is also predominant. A similar scenario will be found in other sectors, too.
The prevalent corporate culture is one of the major barriers to upholding the spirit of May Day. All-pervasive consumerism or, in other words, consumption of products/services to fulfill the artificial demand created in the human psyche also works as an instrument for exploitation.
Even the people of the middle-income groups in developed countries like the USA and the UK have also been victimised by consumerism. Many people voluntarily work for longer periods or opt for a second job to enhance their income so as to be able to follow the dictates of consumerism.
Most developed countries and international organisations like the World Bank (WB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), as well as the multinational corporations, regulate the strategic policies against the interest of the working class. For instance, a policy of GATT, chalked out by the Clinton and Bush administrations, has prohibited penalties for goods produced under substandard and environmentally harmful conditions, in line with the demand of the corporate interests.
To sum up, we have to go a long way to uphold the spirit of May Day. The world seems to be suffering from an ideological crisis. To bring about a change, we need to fight against the rapid expansion of neo-capitalism and chalk out a new ideology in favour of the working class.
In the recent past, the working class dreamt of emancipation through Marxism. But at the fag end of the last century, the fall of the communist block has brought utmost frustration for the working class. Still, Marxism, till date, is the major creed which addresses the various issues of the working class.
So, we should revisit Marxism with a view to evaluating its loopholes. This, in turn, will help us in formulating a new ideology in the context of the present complex socio-economic and cultural dimension for the complete emancipation of the world working class.
Md. Anwarul Kabir is a university academic and a contributor to the DS.
E-mail: [email protected]