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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 20, May 4, 2013

The Significance of ‘May Day’ and India’s Response

Saturday 4 May 2013

by Anil Kumar Mohapatra

‘Many meanings’ have been associated with the ‘First of May’ of which one that has received wide acceptance is that it reminds us of the importance of the ‘working class’ to our society. Therefore, in many countries, May 1 is observed as ‘May Day’ or ‘International Workers’ Day’. In many countries the day is an official government holiday marked by meetings and street demonstrations to highlight the cause of the working class.

Its commemoration dates back to the mass strike and demonstration of immigrant workers in Chicago in the US on May 1, 1886 demanding a standard workday of eight hours which ended in the hurling of a bomb at a policeman present at the Haymarket Square and the subsequent wild shooting into the peaceful gathering by the police on May 4 that year and later the trial and indictment of eight innocent social revolutionaries and subsequent suicide of one, hanging of four and acquittal of three others. The day, with peaceful demonstrations, was regarded by the workers as their “Emancipation Day” which, however, ended in their suppression and the killing of their main leaders. Their enthusiasm and fearlessness despite the shock of that tragic incident 127 years ago left a deep bearing on the labour movements across the globe in the succeeding years and is still continuing until now. August Spies, who was hanged, prophe-tically envisioned that and said: “You may silence us now, but our memory will survive us.” Therefore, since 1886 not only the revolutio-naries/martyrs like August Spies, Alfred Parsons, Schwab, Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Lingg, and Neebe are remembered on the day but also the workers use the occasion to take up their issues with their concerned authorities and governments across the globe.

The Haymarket incident of 1886 had many symbolic messages. It was for the second time after the suppression of such a labour movement in 1877 by the Chicago Police that the immigrant workers (mostly from Germany, from ‘Czech Republic and Slovakia’ then called Bohemia, from France and different parts of Europe) in huge numbers (coming to more than 200,000) marched through the streets of Chicago in protest against the long working hours, that is, ten-to-twelve hours a day and the freezing of wages by their employers. They demanded a shorter workday.

It took place in a period when the American industrial capitalism was booming and democratic norms such as freedom of speech were not rooted in the US. The alien workers then ventured to stage boycotts, rallies and protests against their employers on the soil of another state. They were all for resorting to direct action as they had little faith in the legislature. They believed to get their demands fulfilled by pressurising them from the streets. The media and thus the public were hostile to the strike and to any form of direct action. The workers surprisingly hoped to compel the employers to concede to their demands. And, all these happened 127 years ago when such a way of protest was little heard of.

The way the protest movement unfolded from the First to Fourth of May, 1886 has really shaped the modern day labour movement in any country of the world. The revolutionaries, who were hanged, have since then been regarded as the “martyrs for the cause of industrial freedom”. One of the labour leaders, Albert Parsons, who was hanged following the May 4th Haymarket Square incident, said before being hanged that he would fight for free speech even to the last breath. That heroism shown by the workers and revolutionaries has inspired workers across the globe till now. In contrast, the land where it took place did show little sympathy in the aftermath of such a hysterical killing of revolutionaries without any evidence of their involvement in the conspiracy of throwing a bomb. Instead of any appreciation or sympathy for their cause, one representative response condeming the workers came from a statement of James Russell Lowell who declared that “the rascals are well hanged”.

However, today there has been an increasing realisation of their problems in almost all countries of the world irrespective of the nature of their governments. The concerns of the labourers are well addressed by their concerned governments. Human rights demand humane treatment of the toiling millions. Their rights are now being protected through laws and acts everywhere. In recognition of this the Inter-national Labour Organisation (ILO) was founded in 1919 and this became the first specialised agency of the UN in 1946. The ILO is devoted to promote social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights, pursuing its founding mission that labour peace is essential to prosperity. Today, the ILO helps advance the creation of decent work and the economic and working conditions that give working people and business people a stake in lasting peace, pros-perity and progress. Its tripartite structure provides a unique platform for promoting decent work for all women and men. Its main aims are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportu-nities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.

 In India, the first May Day celebration was organised in Madras (Chennai) by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan in 1923. Today, it is a nationwide bank and public holiday. It is a day for protests and rallies. Different labour organisations, such as trade unions, carry out processions to put forth their demands before the government. They demand that their interests are safeguarded vis-à-vis their employers which include the government as well.

The Constitution of India adequately reflects its concern for the working class. The Indian Constitution under Article 19(c) allows all citizens the right to form associations or unions. Article 23 prohibits forced labour. Article 38 asks the State to secure a social order for the promotion of welfare of the people particularly by striving to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations. Article 39 directs the State to direct its policy towards securing—(a) that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to adequate means of livelihood; (b) that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as can best subserve the common good; (c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment; (d) that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women; (e) that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength. Article 41 directs the State to ensure Right to Work for all who are in need. Article 42 asks the State to make provision for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief. Similarly Article 43 directs the State that it shall endeavour to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities. Article 43A provides that the State shall take steps, by suitable legislation or in any other way, to secure the participation of workers in the management of undertakings, establishments or other organisations engaged in any industry. Now the MGNREGS is in operation since 2005 to provide 100 days of work in a year to each household in the rural areas. It has been a partial fulfilment of the obligation of providing Right to Work. Labour organisations like trade unions are large in number in India today and they are given representation on the concerned managements.

Now we have a separate Ministry, that is, the ‘Ministry of Labour and Employment’ to deal with the problems of the working class. It is one of the oldest and important Ministries of the Government of India. The main responsibility of the Ministry is to protect and safeguard the interests of workers in general, and those who constitute the poor, deprived and disadvantage sections of the society in particular, with due regard to creating a healthy work environment for higher production and productivity and to develop and coordinate vocational skill training and employment services. The government’s attention is also focused on promotion of welfare and providing social security to the labour force both in the organised and unorganised sectors, in tandem with the process of liberalisation. These objectives are sought to be achieved through enactment and implementation of various labour laws, which regulate the terms and conditions of service and employment of workers. The State governments are also compe-tent to enact legislations, as labour is a subject in the concurrent list under the Constitution of India.

We have now several laws relating to workers in operation. There are 44 labour related statutes enacted by the Central Government dealing with minimum wages, accidental and social security benefits, occupational safety and health, conditions of employment, disciplinary action, formation of trade unions, industrail relations, etc. There are some industrial laws like the Trade Unions Act, 1926, the Trade Unions (Amendments) Act, 2001, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Rules, 1946, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 and the Plantation Labour Act, 1951. There are some laws related to Working Hours, Conditions of Services and Employment such as the Dock Workers (Safety, Health & Welfare) Act, 1986, the Mines Act, 1952 and the Factories Act, 1948.

The laws Related to Child Labour are the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986 and the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933. The law Related to Women Labour is the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976. There are several laws related to Social Security. These are the Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923, the Employees’ Compensation (Amendments) Act, 2000, the Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948, the Employees’ Provident Fund & Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952, the Employees’ Provident Fund & Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Act, 1996, the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972, Employees liability act 1938 and the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 etc. There are also some laws related to Labour Welfare such as the Mica Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1946, the Limestone & Dolomite Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1972, the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976, the Beedi Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1976, the Beedi Worker’s Welfare Cess Act Rules, 1977, the Iron Ore Mines, Manganese Ore Mines & Chrome Ore Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1976, the Iron Ore Mines, Manganese Ore Mines & Chrome Ore Mines Labour Welfare Cess Act, 1976 and the Cine Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1981 etc.

There are also some rules regarding Contract Labour such as the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. There are some laws relating to wages as well. These are the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, the Payment of Wages Rules, 1937, the Payment of Wages (Amendment) Act, 2005, the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Minimum Wages (Central) Rules, 1950 and the Working Journalist (Fixation of Rates of Wages) Act, 1958 etc. These laws provide protection to the labour class. Such as, for example, the Factories Act is meant to provide protection to the workers from being exploited by the greedy business establishments and it also provides for the improvement of working conditions within the factory premises.

Attention also has been given to the workers in the unorganised sectors. As per the survey carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation in the year 2009-10, the total employment, in both organised and unorganised sectors, in the country was of the order of 46.5 crores comprising around 2.8 crores in the organised sector and the balance 43.7 crores workers in the unorganised sector. Out of 43.7 crore workers in the unorganised sector, there are 24.6 crore workers employed in the agricultural sector, about 4.4 crore in construction work and the remaining in manufacturing and service. In order to ensure welfare of workers in the unorganised sector which, inter-alia, include weavers, handloom workers, fishermen and fisherwomen, toddy tappers, leather workers, plantation labour, beedi workers, the ‘Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008’ has been enacted. As per the provisions of the Act, a National Social Security Board has been constituted for recommending formulation of social security schemes, namely, life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection and any other benefit as may be determined by the government for the unorganised workers. They are now given insurance coverage.

Notwithstanding all these, we have to admit that many things still remain to be done to ameliorate the conditions of the workers in the unorganised sectors of our country. The laws are many but the problem lies in their proper implementation. Much of the controversy on the MGNREGA still centres around injustice done to the poor who are engaged on a short-term basis. It is reported that the workers in the unorganised sectors are forced to work longer with less wage and corrective measures in this regard are yet to be formulated. Workers are also partly to blame for their ordeals and miseries. Workers—in both organised and unorganised sectors—are yet to develop class consciousness. Being guided by a ‘false consciousness’, they are now divided into several groups and sub-groups which has resulted in their lack of unity and cohesiveness.

Political affiliation is a serious obstacle to the joint fight of workers for their common maladies. Political parties drag them in different directions to promote their partisan interests at the cost of the genuine interests of the workers. The authorities thus find it easy to tackle labour issues by playing one against another. Nevertheless, one cannot refute the fact that workers are the backbone of our country’s economy. A nation like ours cannot genuinely progress and prosper if its working force is unhappy. The economic development of the country will be effective and true only when the government and management realise the central importance of the workers in the economic sphere. Despite the increasing use of machine and technology the significance of labour or human hand is still there. Karl Marx therefore, emphatically held the view that ‘labour adds to the value of a good’. Therefore, it would be unwise on the part of the government to dissatisfy its work-force by denying it its due. At the same time, it is sure that the workers are not going to get recognition and justice by sitting divided and silent. They need to unite as they have to lose nothing but their chains, as Marx said.


1. See Editor’s Remark on ‘Haymarket’. 1986, International Labour and Working-Class History, No. 29, Spring, p. iii. In India it is celebrated as a spring fertility festival to honour goddess spring. It is also a day of political protests. It is otherwise observed as a saint’s feast day. For the States like Gujarat and Maharashtra it is observed as the Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day respectively as the two States attained statehood on that day in 1960.

2. Carter, Everett, 1950, ‘The Haymarket Affair in Literature’, American Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, p. 271.

3. See ILO at—en/index.htm

4. See the Ministry of Labour & Employment,

Dr Anil Kumar Mohapatra is a Lecturer, P.G. Department of Political Science, Utkal University, Vanivihar, Bhubaneswar. He is a former Visiting Research Fellow, Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme, School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies (SIAS), University of Oxford, UK.

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