International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day or May Day in various countries, is celebrated on May 1. Being the key contributors to the development of society, the day celebrates labours and the working class.
In India, Labour Day is generally celebrated as a national holiday, this year, however, the scene is a little more sombre. With the new wave of COVID-19 cases in the country, daily wagers, especially migrant workers (who returned to the bigger cities during the brief slump in coronavirus cases) have gone back to their hometowns. While daily wagers have fled the cities, there are still many workers including medical professionals and staff, delivery infrastructure, media, that have stood their ground and are battling to keep afloat in the current situation.
Significance of Labour Day
To commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, May 1 was chosen to be the International Workers’ Day. Post Long Depression, Chicago emerged as one of the major industrial centres in the US. The abysmal state of labours’ working hours, as well as wages, pushed them to demand better working conditions. On May 4, the labour union carried out a peaceful strike demanding a change in working hours from fifteen to eight, proper wages, and paid leaves, among others. The strike, however, was overshadowed by bombings which led to the deaths of many. While many protesters were arrested and served faced terms of life imprisonment, others were punished with death sentences. This event is believed to have given the workers’ movement a great boost.
In 1889, the date was chosen by the Marxist International Socialist Congress which met in Paris and established International Workingmen's Association’s successor - Second International. The resolution for a "great international demonstration" was adopted in support of the working-class demands. May Day or Labour Day eventually became an annual event.
In many countries, the day is a national, public holiday. Some of the nations even recognise this day by various names, especially in India.
Kamgar Din in India
While the International Workers’ Day is called Kamgar Din in Hindi, it is also known as ‘Uzhaipalar dhinam’ in Tamil, ‘Karmikara Dinacharane’ in Kannada, ‘Karmika Dinotsavam’ in Telugu, ‘Kamgar Divas’ in Marathi, ‘Thozhilaali Dinam’ in Malayalam and ‘Shromik Dibosh’ in Bengali. Celebrated first in Chennai, Labour Day’s movement here is tied to the labour movements for communist and socialist political parties.
Since May 1 is not a national holiday, as in many other countries, May Day is observed as a public holiday at the state government’s discretion. In some states of North India, it is not a public holiday.
B R Ambedkar’s role in reforming the working situation in India
Dr B R Ambedkar was known to identify problems in society and work towards finding a solution. His understanding of labour matters in India was widely acknowledged. Ambedkar was critical in guiding Indian labour, while the world was struggling with World War II.
One of the agendas of his Independent Labour Party (ILP) was to solve the grievances of the farmers and workers. Formed in 1936, the party contested in 1937 polls for Bombay Constituency and won 15 out of 17 seats. In the same year, Ambedkar opposed the introduction of the Industrial Dispute Bill, 1937 as it removed the workers’ right to strike.
It is thanks to B R Ambedkar that today we work for 8 hours a day as he was the one who introduced reduced working hours in India. Even though the 8-hour work was one of the major demands in the labour movement around the world, India gained cognisance in 1942, when Ambedkar brought it up in the 7th session of the Indian Labour Conference in New Delhi on November 27. Ambedkar’s measures for worker welfare practically laid the foundation for the government’s labour policy. On November 8, 1943, he introduced the Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Bill that forced employers to acknowledge trade unions.
While all Indian workers have Ambedkar to thank for better labour benefits, women workers (in particular) have him to thank for the introduction of 'Mines Maternity Benefit Act', 'Women Labour Welfare Fund', 'Women and Child Labour Protection Act', 'Maternity Benefit for Women Labour', and 'Restoration of Ban on Employment of Women on Underground Work in Coal Mines'. From Dearness Allowance (DA) and Employees State Insurance (ESI) to Leave Benefit that we enjoy at our workplace today, is thanks to Dr Ambedkar.
It is safe to say that Ambedkar’s active steps towards bettering the lives of workers in the country yielded decent results. While reformists and activists continue to fight for the rights of labour in the changing work and social environment, it is important to recognise his contribution to the cause.
In a pandemic, the labour force in India has taken a big hit. Despite that, many are hopeful for a decent post-COVID-19 work scene.