Tuesday 2nd May, 2023

Another May Day has come and gone. The organisers of the International Workers’ Day celebrations, in this country, rarely mention the Haymarket Riot in Chicago (1886), and benefits that accrued therefrom to workers the world over, much less commemorate the brave workers who have laid down their lives in the US and other countries for sake of the working class. Instead, they use the occasion to advance their political agendas. On watching the Labour Day events, here, yesterday, we were reminded of a verse from a satirical poem about poets and poetry, of all things:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write
I’m with you there, of course.
They use the snaffle and the curb all right;
But where’s the bloody horse?

Yesterday’s celebrations had the Labour Day trappings, but where the hell were the workers? At those events, which were numerous, everything except workers’ interests figured prominently. They were devoid of the May Day spirit, to say the least, and full of politically-charged, fiery oratory; the office-bearers of the trade union affiliated to political parties made a public display of their boot-licking skills, again, praising as they did their political masters very ingratiatingly to nauseating extremes.

We have had political leaders who introduced very progressive laws and launched various schemes to protect the interests of workers, but almost all of them have crossed the Great Divide, and the others are in the left movement, and avoiding the limelight. Sadly, what passes for Labour Day events in this country is a series of political circuses, where rotgut and food are given away generously in some cases. The government announced a small fuel price reduction with effect from yesterday presumably to dupe workers into believing that it cares for the public.

Sri Lankan workers are in deep trouble. They are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Many of them have lost their jobs and are in penury. No mention was made yesterday of their plight and the danger that the scheduled domestic debt restructuring would pose to the workers’ superannuation fund, the EPF. It is such grave matters that labour leaders and politicians ought to address if they are genuinely concerned about workers.

Trade unions are all hat and no cattle, so to speak. Sri Lanka’s labour movement has a proud history but it is now divided along petty party lines, and some unions are doing full-time political work on the pretext of fighting for workers’ rights. They have unflinchingly subjugated workers’ rights to the agendas of their political parties. Never do they care to turn the searchlight inwards and ask themselves whether they have done anything to help increase national productivity and thereby enable the country to come out of the current economic crisis. They are given to demanding what they consider their pound of flesh. This country has too many holidays, but has any trade union taken up this issue and called for increasing the number of working days to boost the economy? Worse, they are unashamedly offering their services as palanquin bearers to crafty politicians who have ruined the economy and inflicted so much suffering on workers, and are suppressing labour rights. The SLPP-UNP regime has gone so far as to threaten to confiscate the assets of some workers who have resorted to industrial action. It is suppressing workers’ rights in every conceivable manner, but the UNP and the SLPP were among the parties that held Labour Day celebrations yesterday!

We thought yesterday’s May Day celebrations would commence with a commemorative event near the statue of labour leader A. E. Goonesinghe, in Pettah, but, at the time of writing, the great man stood there, all alone, with a sledge hammer poised overhead. The tube, however, was full of colourful May Day ceremonies, where hosannas were sung for lesser politicians, who have never rendered any service to workers or are responsible for curbing labour rights! Is it that the present-day politicians and trade union leaders with hidden agendas are scared of going anywhere near the Goonesinghe statue lest the legendary leader’s sledge hammer should land slap-bang on their hollow crania?

Let the wily politicians who have undertaken to play a messianic role to deliver the working class from their suffering be asked to render unto the worker what is his or hers—at least on the International Workers’ Day. Self-proclaimed labour leaders ought to mend their ways and end the practice of polluting trade unionism with dirty politics and further the interests of workers while helping the country achieve economic progress.