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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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