New Internationalist

Mayday on May Day

I meant to write this column on May Day a couple of weeks ago. Then the news of Osama’s death hit the world and I simply had to comment on that. Well it’s still May, so perhaps it’s not too late to reflect on May Day with all its implications.

As a kid, in Kolkata, May Day was a holiday and the city erupted in celebrations, loudspeakers blaring, street theatre, etc. I always thought this was a communist celebration because Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was known then in its still colonial avatar (streets are still named after British Viceroys and Governor Generals) was, paradoxically, a bastion of the Communist Party. I somehow linked this with the strong Marxist flavour of Kolkata and thought the May Day celebrations originated in Moscow. Red rule, workers forever seemed logically to have come from Russia.

Much later, through the internet, I discovered that May Day celebrations originated in the United States. That workers there had united to fight for better working conditions, fair wages, an eight-hour working day, etc. I must confess I was gob-smacked. May Day celebrations in that bastion of capitalism, the US of A? Of course, I’d read about the Chicago unions, movements that fought for the rights of migrant workers in California and other places. Still, my childhood May Day memories remained fixed, hammer ’n sickle, red flag, workers shouting ‘Down with the running dogs of capitalism!’

Labor Day parade in Montreal, 2 September 1946. Photo via Kheel Center, Cornell University on flickr.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Everywhere, I see a regression of the hard-won freedoms fought for so fiercely by workers around the globe. With the so-called recession, people are so petrified of losing their jobs that they work long exploitative hours, meet unrealistic targets without a murmur, though they must perforce to sit up all night trying to meet those deadlines. I am talking largely about young people in the IT sector, but also everywhere else. The fear of being unemployed, of losing your home, of being made redundant has everyone tense, stressed, terrified and insecure about the future.

There’s a slight difference, too, in the attitude of these young people in the IT, banking, ‘white collar’ sector today. They don’t perceive themselves as terribly oppressed, unlike their counterparts, decades ago, who fought the Victorian work house culture. The cage is so beautifully gilded, you see. These people get perks. Transport to and from work. Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken (considered cool, exotic food in Majority World air-conditioned sweatshops) at your work station when you do long hours past six o’ clock, every evening.

Young IT professionals often drop dead now, in their thirties, or end up depressed, unhealthy, with heart disease, high blood pressure, terrible cholesterol levels. Their marriages break up. There’s no time for relationships when you work late nights, most nights and many weekends.

Perversely, everyone longs for those jobs. It’s seen as having arrived. They earn lots of money. Often they are taken from Bangaloreto five star resorts in glamorous locations – Singapore, Bangkok, Sri Lanka, the Maldives – for retreats or on team building exercises. They eat out a lot, wear trendy clothes, flash impressive-looking credit cards. They look cool, self-assured, rich. A few years down the line, many of these young people are burned out. But that’s another story.

In this blog, I want to focus on the injustice of the current employment scenario and the fact that instead of moving forward, our society appears to be regressing. We treat words like injustice, workers rights, etc as passé, old-fashioned, out-of-date words from the 1960s and 1970s. We’ve moved on to a brave new world in which, apparently, you have to sink or swim with the tide.

Regressing? Photo by Akaporn Bhothisuwan under a CC licence.

Yet, I see a simmering anger in people. Together with a sense of helplessness. In the 1970s we fought, we protested and we were proud of the battles we won. From Vietnam to workers’ wages. It was a wave that spread across the globe quickly. In the US, people burnt draft cards to protest an unjust war; in Paris students revolted and changed society forever; in Brazil folks used the Catholic religion to mobilize workers into basic communities. All of these movements affected Indian, African and Asian youth. There were anti-colonial wars, labour union struggles and innumerable battles for democracy.

Although I see frustration and a sense of helplessness all around the world, I feel that people have reached their limit. When pension funds are swallowed up by corrupt bankers who drive away in their Porches with perks that rightly belong to pensioners, something must give.

I hope I’m around to see this Second Coming. And I hope it’s soon.

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  1. #1 Aloke Surin 21 May 11

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mari. With a caveat : the exploitation of workers is not restricted to only IT almost every privately owned business around the world, the cog in the machinery ( worker) is underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated for his/her contribution to the overall success of the business. True, lip service routinely paid by higher management - but it stops right there.

    Labour, by and large, has lost its clout, thanks to laws framed by various governments in collusion with big business. All in the name of ’stimulating the economy’.....

    Workers seem to have less and less say in their workplace than they did in the seventies....and what is worse, they have no recourse to picket lines, strikes, ’go-slow’, ’pen down’ and other subversive tactics which were used to keep management in check.

    I too await the Second Coming of People Power as it relates to workers!

  2. #2 cbopaiah 22 May 11

    the US labour day is now in August. Almost nobody there acknowledges May day - as far as I know (except perhaps Evergreen College - where it may be more culture oriented. )

  3. #3 Claudturtle 25 May 11

    And it doesn't stop with workers - as witnessed by recent developments in the UK re tuition fees universities too are subject to commodification, McDonaldisation, renewed elitism, and capitalisation (e.g. redefining degrees in terms of producing workers for the knowledge economy).
    Not everyone is able to remain free-thinking in such an environment...

  4. #4 Nishita 28 May 11

    Dear Mari,

    This topic is something that is very touchy for my friends and me since all of us are ( or were in my case) young IT professionals. So I sent this link to 8 of my very good friend to know their opinion. It had been very long since we had a chat about this topic.

    I thought i should tell you, as surprising as it was for me, 7 of them replied saying they agree with the author!!! I expected an uproar and told them to send me the comments and not to comment online but it seems that there is indeed a general feeling of helplessness amongst the young IT generation.

    Most of my friends have worked in the US for atleast a couple of years and they said that this 'fear' was seen mostly amongst the indian community only. This is really interesting and I think its because in India IT draws almost everybody just because of the money in it but there in the US, engineers become engineers because they are passionate about it and not only because of the money.

    I dont know if I have managed to put my thoughts across as well as I would like to. But we can have a chat about this whenever your free.

    Thanks for writing this... for whatever its worth, I think you have put across your thoughts brilliantly!!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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