Ah! May Day. It's here. Our newspapers will carry a close-up shot of hardworking men or women in action (e.g., breaking bricks, carrying loads, or manning the machine) to draw our attention to the tears and sweat of a largely overlooked mass whose discomfort ensures the comfort of the rest. Certain political parties will brandish their hammers and scythes to bring out a routine rally here and there, chanting slogans about breaking the chains of oppression to unite the local labourers with their comrades elsewhere. Editorials in their sophisticated articulation will remind the readers of the place where it all began: the Haymarket Affair of 1886 in which workers in Chicago demanded for an eight-hour workday and how their peaceful rally turned into a riot killing scores of workers and police officials, and how their sacrifice paved the way for some labour rights that did not exist before. We will be told how three years later, in 1889, the socialists and the communists of the Second International decided to commemorate the day as the International Workers' Day, and how many countries around the world decided to observe it as a public holiday.
For many, it is a day to take a break in honour of those whose lives know nothing of any break. These labourers know that the moment they stop working, that very moment food will stop appearing on their plates. Working for them is as inherent as breathing. The moment you stop, you drop. Hence even during the pandemic-induced lockdown you see them in the streets looking for jobs, crying for food. One recent symbol that captures the plight of the downtrodden adequately involves an upturned rickshaw next to a tear-soaked man holding a Tk 1,000 fine ticket issued by the police who, however, are fine with letting the airconditioned private cars go by without any hassle. The image talks of an asymmetrical power arrangement. The demand for fair treatment, fair wage, fair working condition remains unattained as we approach yet another May Day.
The land where it all started, in the US, the day is recognised as Labour Day Holiday. For Donna T Haverty-Stacke, the author of America's Forgotten Holiday, the day has deviated from its history when the workers secured a working condition to show the beauty of American nationalism where voices mattered, opinions mattered for the social health of a country. But in course of time, the day has morphed into a national holiday for the consumerist culture where newspapers simply tell you what to shop or which movies to watch. The day has lost its purpose as it keeps on ignoring the informal sectors where thousands of migrant workers, undocumented workers are routinely exploited and abused. The discrepancy between the have and the have-not is expanding exponentially. Frustrated by the lack of required attention, since 1990s, the day has become an annual rallying point for anarchists, socialists, and communists around the world. For instance, the yellow-vest protest in 2019 caused Paris to burn to highlight the burning question of inequity and injustice that pervade the labour landscape.
Meanwhile, here in Bangladesh we watch the TV scrolls announcing that the High Court has asked all factory owners to clear the dues and bonuses of their workers by the 15th. I wonder why the factory owners and corporate houses delay the payment of staff salaries! They sit on the deferred fund to hatch bank interest while they continue to arm-twist the government to pay for incentives or soft loans. These owners know that they have the genie bottled in their factory—the angry mob consisting of the half-fed and fed-up workers. If the government does not comply, they can release this genie to create unrest, to waylay public roads and highways. Besides, they have the powerful lobbyists abroad to vouch for them to remind the government of the consequence of not listening to their local partners, the factory owners. Even a casual cancellation of shipment can trigger financial chaos, and the stock market will cry, "Mayday! Mayday!". Indeed, there are many mighty actors who have the mechanism to both voice out and silence stories of the force that work. The photos that we see on the May 1 edition of our newspapers is just a story that has been curated to tell a sanitised version of the labour story. Then again, these stories act like sample case stories. They ache like a bad tooth that is connected to our entire nerve-system. When one tooth hurts, the whole-body feels it. Sadly, during this pandemic, the whole body is hurt.
I look out of my window. Even the sidewalks of our private alley are flooded with jobless people who have nowhere to go. They solicit charity at the expense of their dignity. Near the gate of my mother's place in Uttara, a burger joint run by an elderly couple has recently opened. The man used to own a knitting factory. The pandemic forced him to close it down. He paid off his workers with his savings, downsized his lifestyle by moving to a small apartment in the suburb. His wife in a veil now cooks burgers in the streets and he sells. My brother has asked the couple to use our facilities for resting or freshening up. The factory owner here too is a victim of a pitiless system. The pandemic has stripped him of his dignity, which he is trying to regain by joining the workforce, of which he was a master. It's a cruel world.
This owner is not lucky enough to receive the pay packages and government incentives. He worked outside the radar of the bargaining agency of factory owners. The system is full of manipulations and exploits. Remember the fracas over sending garment workers home then ordering them to return to their duties so that the owners could claim government benefits; that is a classic example of a system of abuse that persists. At least, these workers are documented and working within a formal system that maintains a semblance of compliance. For most of the working-class people, there is no such protection.
These are the day workers outside the formal structure. They work in a highly precarious employment arrangement. They are hired on an as-needed basis with no guarantee of continuing employment from one day to the next, or even from one hour to the next. I was listening to the news interview of one loading staff at Aminbazar engaged in carrying coals. He was saying how his daily salary has been slashed by the contractors. They used to make Tk 800-1000 a day, and now the loaders are being paid Tk 200-400 for a full day job. "End of the day, we have to eat! Pay rents," he said.
The exploitative nature of the day labour economy is hardly talked about. It is reduced to a once-a-year May Day photoshoot. Yet these workers experience high rates of wage non-payment and exposure to hazardous working conditions with no coverage for on-the-job injuries. With no skill sets, these people are forced to accept whatever jobs are available and to agree to work on employers' terms.
Unless we can reduce the social gap, May Day will remain an unholy day in which we have failed to give our fellow human beings the right respect.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).