Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, May 01, 2008

By Shuprova Tasneem

Labour Day has come and gone, and since it is a national holiday, it has given us all the chance to rest and relax. For most of us, that is what Labour Day is all about, getting some leisure time and reading insightful articles in the morning paper about child labour and women's rights. And that is exactly what I was doing, when I came across the history of this day in one paper.

Labour Day is said to have been first celebrated in Canada because of a labour uprising to demand 8 hours of work instead of the long 12 hours that used to exist at that time. This movement reached the United States soon, where most people now consider Labour Day to be commemorated in memory of those who died in Chicago in 1886. Those were days of unrest, when a continuing conflict between the business class and the labour class over long working hours, low pay, unsafe workplaces etc. led to strikes and protests being organised in May, since the workers were promised better conditions at the beginning of that month, but did not receive any. On 3 May, Chicago police killed four striking workers and the day after, a bomb exploded in a peaceful rally, causing the police to open fire and kill at least four workers and injure many others. Instead of giving justice to the workers, seven of them were actually executed by order of the court, but were ironically given free pardons in 1893. But it was only in the 90s that these rebellious workers were nationally recognised, and since then they have been honoured on May Day in USA. They are remembered in our country as well, and members of some labour right parties held candlelight vigils in remembrance.

I don't know about you, but this incident reminds me of the protests that were organised by garment workers in 2006, who also demanded better wages, safer working conditions and less working hours; and where the police as usual resorted to violence, killing at least 3 workers and injuring many others. And though the workers were not hanged for protesting, the injustice done to them was ignored. The factory owners and most of the members of the 'upper class' of society instead focused on the damage done to their property by the rioting workers, forgetting about the damage their self-indulgence had done to human lives. Why shouldn't the workers resort to vandalism? They had nothing to lose; their lives were bad enough, what with the collapsing garment factories, fires breaking out now and then, general rise in prices of so many commodities which made even rice unaffordable and their demands falling on deaf ears for months, it was natural that they should reach breaking point.

And because of their fierce protests, the government ordered that wages be raised, but since many businessmen did not comply, the protests are breaking out again.

And that has been the repetitive case till now. But the deaths of workers in these protests were not the only ones that went ignored. On June 2005, the collapse of the Spectrum Sweaters factory in Savar killed at least 61 workers. The collapse of a building in Tejgaon also left more than 18 workers dead and many others disabled for life. Since 1990, 350 garment workers have died in factory fires, and around 1500 have been seriously injured. In April and in May last year, police fired on people agitating for electricity in Kansat and Shonir Akhra, killing five people including a 10 year old boy. These people may or may not have been workers, but they were fighting for their basic rights, like those people in Chicago in 1886 were, and that is why they had to die. And last but not least, we have had people dying because of a demolition procedure of the Rangs Bhaban in Dhaka this year being faulty.

But what happened to the families of these people? What happened to the cases against those who were responsible for their deaths? I guess we'll never know, because they have passed out of our memories in only one or two years, yet we still honour the memories of people who died in America 121 years ago. I'm not saying that we should not observe Labour Day.

True, we are too obsessed with Western culture and even though I think Valentines, Mothers Day etc are just overrated and pathetic excuses for selling mushy cards; I do consider the protests by the workers in Chicago to be a defining moment in the history of enforcing labour rights.

It is just high time we acknowledge the struggle of workers in our own country and give them the respect (and wages) they deserve. It took America over a century to pay tribute to those who died while fighting for their rights, why should we make the same mistake?

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed



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