May 16, 2021

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May Day protesters demand more job protections during pandemic

Workers and union leaders dusted off bullhorns and flags that had stayed furled during coronavirus lockdowns for slimmed-down but still boisterous May Day marches on Saturday, demanding more labor protections during a pandemic that has turned economies and workplaces upside down.

In countries that mark 1 May as International Labour Day, the annual celebration of workers’ rights produced a rare sight during the pandemic – large and closely packed crowds, with marchers striding shoulder-to-shoulder with clenched fists behind banners. But in Turkey and the Philippines, police prevented the May Day protests, enforcing virus lockdowns.

For labour leaders, the day was a test of their ability to mobilise workers in the face of the profound economic disruptions. In France thousands took to the streets with trade union banners and flags. The face coverings worn by many were a reminder of how much life has changed since the last traditional May Day celebrations, in 2019, before the spreading coronavirus wrecked lives and livelihoods and eroded civil liberties, often including the right to demonstrate.

Some marches, constricted by coronavirus restrictions, were less well-attended than was traditional before the pandemic. But they still served as outlets for workers’ concerns over jobs and protections.

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, thousands vented their anger at a new job creation law that critics fear will reduce severance pay, lessen restrictions for foreign workers, increase outsourcing and hurt workers in other ways as the nation seeks to attract more investment.

Protesters laid tomb effigies on the street to symbolise hopelessness. The Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions was expecting about 50,000 workers from 3,000 companies and factories to march in 200 cities.

In the Philippine capital of Manila, where a month-long coronavirus lockdown has been extended by two weeks amid a surge in infections, police prevented hundreds of workers from demonstrating at a public plaza, protest leader Renato Reyes said. But protesters did gather briefly at a busy Manila boulevard, demanding pandemic cash aid, wage subsidies and Covid-19 vaccines in the wake of rising unemployment and hunger.

“Workers were largely left to fend for themselves while being locked down,” labor leader Josua Mata said.

In Turkey, a few labour leaders were allowed to lay wreaths in Istanbul’s Taksim Square but riot police stopped many others from reaching the plaza. The Progressive Lawyers’ Association said more than 200 people were detained. Turks are barred from leaving home, except to collect essential food and medicine, under a lockdown until 17 May that aims to halt a surge in infections. Protests were also banned around Taksim Square.

In France, political leaders on the far right and the far left who are expected to be President Emmanuel Macron’s main challengers if he stands for re-election next year tore into his policies and his handling of the pandemic. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told marchers: “I hope that on 1 May 2022, I can come back to see you as president of the republic.”

France has seen over 104,000 Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began.

Broadcaster BFM-TV reported that French riot police fired small amounts of teargas at two of the dozens of rallies called nationwide. Police in Paris said they made 10 arrests.