May First is celebrated all over the world as International Labour or Workers Day. It is ironic that its origin was in the capitalist country of the United States in the late 19th century and interestingly not in Russia and China which had communist revolutions in the next century. Its roots are traced to the bloody confrontation between striking workers [protesting against the 16 hours working day and for safer working conditions] and the police in Chicago in 1886, known as the Haymarket Affair. It was at the first International Socialist Congress in Paris in 1889 that International Workers’ Day was officially recognized. The Socialist Congress of 1904 in Amsterdam made it mandatory to stop work on May Day, calling on ”all Socialist Democratic party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace”. The working class has always faced repression and following the industrial revolution [1760 to 1840] and the pathetic condition of the workers had led to workers organizing themselves for improvement of their conditions.
Writers, thinkers and academics have documented the problems of workers. John Ruskin’s book, “Unto the Last’’ first published as four articles in 1860 in the Cornhill journal was triggered by the plight of the workers and has vividly portrayed the condition of the workers. Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by Ruskin’s book for formulating his ideas like ‘Sarvodaya’ and “Antyodaya’’. Sarvodaya means universal uplift or rising of all and it was Gandhiji’s idea of economic and social development of the whole community or country. Gandhiji also envisaged Antyodaya which means rising or uplifting of the weakest section or the last man. In fact, Gandhiji’s idea of Sarvodaya was through Antyodaya.
The sudden announcement of a complete lockdown from 25th March, inevitable under the circumstances to combat the coronavirus onslaught, resulted in panic among the migrants in our cities who suddenly realized that the stoppage of all activities would mean drying up of their source of income. They became unsure of their next meal and had no money to pay for their accommodation. The only choice left for them was to return to wherever they came from in U P, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal or Orissa. But as the rail and bus services too were closed, there was no escape. Hordes of stranded workers had ventured to walk hundreds of kilometres with their families including infants and children, carrying whatever little belongings they had. This was prevented by the police who sometimes beat them up and then the workers were kept in makeshift detention centres forced to live on the food given by the government or civil society groups. This happened in all cities across the country. They clamoured for transport to go back and even created riot- like situations in some places like Surat in Gujarat where there were illegal gatherings during lockdown.
The workers had no choice but to wait till the government allowed road and rail traffic to resume. Some of those who walked did not reach their faraway destinations; few unfortunate ones fell on the way exhausted and died. What I have written about their untold miseries is only a tip of the iceberg. Finally, the wait was over and road and rail transport started. Like a Labour / May Day tribute to our stranded migrant workers, on first May the government announced the Shramik Express Passenger trains from Delhi to Jharkhand, UP and Bihar. There were also announcements about such special trains from Nasik to Lucknow, Aluva to Bhubaneshwar, Nasik to Bhopal, Jaipur to Patna and Kota to Hatia. Here again, as some of the trains were leaving soon after the announcements the workers had to scurry to stations to catch the trains.
The condition of workers in almost all countries including in our own country was miserable till the dawn of independent democracies. The League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations formed the International Labour Organization [ILO] in 1919 which was the first international effort to work in the direction of labour rights and a better deal for the workers. As a tripartite structure, workers also became equal participants in all deliberations in formulating laws and policies along with employers and governments. Today the ILO works with a mission “to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work related issues”. The international Labour day incidentally is not listed by the UN as an annual Day. The UN however observed 28th April [last Tuesday] as World Day for Security and Health at Work. Coronavirus pandemic and the need for safety is a major challenge now. The present situation of our migrant labour under long lockdown and their journey back home, therefore, need cautious handling. Even when they reach their native homes, they have to be tested and even quarantined according to instructions from their respective local health authorities and once tested virus free there is need to ensure physical or social distancing.
Originally, the theme for the UN Day for 28th April this year was ‘violence and safety” in the workplace. In view of the pandemic the word security was also added to the theme. ILO Director General Guy Ryder said, ”In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be , as the pandemic evolves.” Ryder adds, it is only by implementing occupational safety and health measures that we can protect, the lives of workers, their families and the larger communities, ensure work continuity and economic revival.”
About the issue of people working from home under today’s lockdown conditions, Guy Ryder says, “Teleworking offers new opportunities for workers to keep working…However, workers must be able to negotiate these arrangements so that they retain balance with other responsibilities, such as caring for children, the sick or the elderly and of course themselves thereby touching upon the importance of maintaining the work-life balance even while working from home.”
Last Tuesday [28th April], to mark the World Day for Safety and Health, the I L O organized a web seminar, STOP PANDEMIC: SAFETY AND HEALTH AT WORK CAN SAVE LIVES. I L O experts and a number of others from across the globe spoke from Geneva and I too joined from Delhi with concerned people from all over the world. The aim of this event was to stimulate dialogue on the importance of ensuring safety and health at work, not only to protect the lives of the workers but also to ensure business continuity. Global Occupational Safety and Health [OSH] experts like Joaquim Nunes, Chief, LabADMIN and Manal Azzi, Senior Specialist and coordinator of the world day report and campaign were panellists. They represented the views of the scientific community, workers and employers in response to the pandemic on health and safety; the mental health impact of COVID19 in different work scenarios and how to prepare for return to work under a risk controlled scenario were also highlighted at this webinar.
At a parallel national webinar conducted on 28th April by Suneel Vatyayan, Chairperson Nada India Foundation at the Social Work Department of Sardar Patel University, Ahmedabad over fifty students of Human Resource of the department participated. Vatsyayan called upon the students to create a safe and healthy space for good health to prevail. He highlighted how the consumption of alcohol is hazardous to health and that it can in no way protect us from the coronavirus or the trauma that is associated with it. What Vatsyayan said has tremendous relevance today. What happened during the partial lockdown yesterday when the governments allowed opening of liquor shops in many cities is disturbing. There was overcrowding, lack of basic discipline and social/ physical distancing and even lathi charge forcing some of the liquor shops to down shutters. Reacting to this Vatsyayan says that “according to the Young India network for Good Health, the magnitude and severity of the harm caused by alcohol use is massive especially when it concerns coronavirus and noncommunicable diseases. To me, alcohol use is not a choice but a response to underlying larger psycho-social issues, trauma and chronic physical or emotional pain. And it requires a concerted and collective effort by individuals, communities, and all state governments in tandem with the centre, as the future of an entire generation is in peril. The need of the hour is to bring a comprehensive Drug and Alcohol Demand Reduction policy.”
During these days of the scourge of the coronavirus and even as we have just celebrated the May Day or the Labour Day, the invaluable contribution of our toiling workers, who often face loss of livelihood and even starvation, need to be honoured by the nation. The state governments which are leading the coronavirus warriors and employers have to ensure safe and healthy returns and a very humane and compassionate policy towards them. Aren’t they as important as anyone else?