But, over the years, the focus has been shifted from the labourers. Politicians and political outfits have now hogged the limelight, moving away from the workers.
Yes, it is still referred to as Labour Day. But, it is tainted with the colour of political parties and their flags.
However, the various events and rallies organized to commemorate this day have sidelined, or pushed behind the working class community who have to follow the politicians in their marches.
The Nation spoke to several politicians on this issue.
May Day hijacked – Amaraweera
General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, Mahinda Amaraweera speaking on the issue admitted that the May Day belonged to the labourers and the workers.
“However, since quite a while back, it has been hijacked by political parties. We accept that that is what has happened. It has become an occasion and an opportunity for a political party to show its strength. In our case, we allow labour leaders to lead the march and when we organize the march we ensure that they are given the space upfront. We have however fulfilled what has been spoken of.”
The Day belongs to the working class – JVP
General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Tilwin Silva said that in reality, using a political slogan of the demand for an eight-hour workday, when a struggle took place in 1886 May, the Police shot at a demonstration, a few died and it was in the situation that emerged in the aftermath that communist parties the world over decided to name May 01 as the May Day.
“It was from a workers struggle that May Day came to be. It belongs to the working class and the Leftist movements,” he said.
He however said that it was now used for political ends by capitalist political parties which were in power and are in power which have suppressed, abolished and denied workers rights, for their own agendas.
“The colour of the May Day and the worker is red. However, the United National Party (UNP) has a green colour May Day and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has a blue colour May Day. Neither is the colour of the May Day.”
“Generally, it is symbols of the workers and those of Leftist leaders that are carried. But the UNPers, will wear t-shirts and hats emblazoned with the pictures or names of electorate and seat organizers. It is the parties that are governing and ruling the country that have distorted the May Day,” he added.
He added that therefore, the workers May Day must continue and it must be protected from attempts by these political parties to defile the honour and respect of the May Day.
He also pointed out the acts of previous governments against the workers in the past. He pointed out that the UNP during the 1980 July strikes, sacked 100,000 workers, which resulted in approximately 14 suicides. “The UNP banned the 1987 May Day and opened fire on a group that got together at the Abayaramaya where a labourer and a student died.”
In addition, he also said that an SLFP Government previously had kidnapped protesting electricity services workers and forcibly obtained their labour.
“The current Government is denying those who have newly joined the public service, the pension. The Government is using the Employees Provident Fund belonging to the private sector employees for their ends and is charging taxes on it and taking monies from the said employees.”
“The estate and plantation workers are demanding Rs 1,000 per day, yet this is not being given. What is the right they have to celebrate May Day? It belongs solely to the trade unions and the Leftist political movements to which they belong,” Silva said.
Higher Education Minister and Leader of the House, Lakshman Kiriella speaking to the Nation said the trade unions that were once powerful had become affiliated to political parties.
He said that trade unions 50 years ago were strong and powerful than political parties but became powerless during later years.
“The trade unions today have unfortunately become affiliated to political parties. That is why the situation has turned around.”
Leader of the Parliamentary Joint Opposition and Leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Dinesh Gunawrdena said organized trade unions in the country have been playing a lesser role now more than two decades ago.
He said that it was because a lot of the basic, minimum demands of workers such as job security, etc., have been won before the law. “Now things are totally different than when the working class was represented under trade unions. More and more, there is a trend where employees, out of the trade union system, have individually appeared on behalf of causes such workplace violations and workplace rights,” he said.
He pointed out that generally, in the national atmosphere, with regard to achieving new legislation and new rights within a market economy, it had to be by way of organized trade unions and a broad section of political forces that support organized trade unions.
“This trend has taken over the May Day too. Not only trade unions but other forces, join hands in a broader alliance on general, common issues such as those involving economic concerns. Not only working people but other political forces have linked up with regard to the May Day. Generally, this is seen all over the world.”
May Day was a political incident – Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne
Leader of the Nawa Sama Samaja Party, Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne said the May Day came out as a political incident, which involved the proletariat and the workers and their struggle to get represented politically by forming organized trade unions and having them accepted.
“Politics was there from the very beginning. Political parties and trade unions are trying to mobilize workers to make demonstrations. Yet, some attempt to bring in religious and racial ideas which are quite contrary to the tradition of social democracy and liberal politics as seen even in Europe,” he said.
He said the labour parties were not socialist parties as such and added that it was only later that the labour parties accepted socialist ideologies.
“What is important is that the workers preside. Politics is not necessarily a strange or new aspect in the May Day. Racist and conservative political ideas coming in is however not acceptable,” he said.
“Political slogans and debates on the other hand are quite acceptable and have been the practice since the 1930s when the trade union movement began here.”