PUBLIC holidays – a time for rest… and a time for protest?
While Labour Day went by without too much fanfare in Singapore, the occasion was politically-charged in many other parts of the world. People took to the streets to call for better working conditions, while labour unions aired their grievances to politicians.
And with the rise of the far right in the US and across Europe, this year’s protests were also uncomfortably tinged with anti-immigrant sentiments. Have May Day protests become an even more potent political force? We look at significant ones from this year:
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1. Paris, France: Going too far against the far-right
Image by Wikimedia Commons user David Monniaux.
Divisive elections and large gatherings can be an explosive mix, as the French found out on May Day. A peaceful march near the Bastille monument escalated into violence rapidly, as protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at the police, who responded with tear gas.
Six officers were injured, with one suffering third-degree burns. The tensions came on the heels of the terrorist attack at Champs Elysees that killed an officer, stoking fears about national security in an increasingly volatile country.
The majority of protestors claimed to be marching against presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her anti-immigrant rhetoric. There are suspicions that the crowd was hijacked by a group of about 150 agitators, who were upset that Ms Le Pen had made it to the final round of polls. But their outburst might have turned into political mileage for the far-right stalwart, who has long condemned violent riots in the country.
2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Garment workers ‘sew’ dissent
Image by Wikimedia Commons user Thenetparadigm.
The Cambodian government had officially banned labour unions from marching on May 1, but for disillusioned citizens, disobedience was the only option. Thousands of garment workers took to the streets to demand an increase in their monthly wages and better working conditions. Police on site did not interfere with the march.
The apparel industry is one of Cambodia’s biggest sources of income, generating $6 billion for the country annually. It has long relied on suppressing wages to maintain a competitive edge globally, but this has come at the cost of entrenching some 600,000 workers in poverty.
Over the years, the Collective Union Movement of Workers, a Cambodian labour union, has achieved small victories for garment workers, such as a $13 raise in the minimum wage effective this year. But until they obtain their requested minimum wage of $171 per month, the workers will take their grievances far beyond May Day.
3. Jakarta, Indonesia: Flowers on fire
Image by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathan McIntosh.
Around 40,000 protestors flooded the streets to demand higher wages, and improved working conditions. Workers marched toward the presidential palace, while other activists carried signs advocating for the rights of female domestic workers.
But the peaceful labour demonstrations in Jakarta were marred by the burning of flower boards left for Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja. A group of trade unionists from Indonesian Electric Metal Workers Federation and the Confederation of All Indonesian Workers Union (KSPSI) destroyed the boards and set them on fire. Trade unions have opposed Ahok as they are unhappy with the minimum wage set by his administration for Jakarta. Some have interpreted their actions as politically motivated and an unwarranted distraction from the advocacy of labour rights. “Jakarta today – a handful of people trying to tarnish the labour struggle…this is shameful” said a netizen on twitter.
Defeated in the 2017 Jakarta elections, Ahok and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat got only 43 per cent of the votes. His rivals accused him of making blasphemous statements against Islam. Indonesian prosecutors had called for him to be jailed.
4. Istanbul, Turkey: Reminder of a gruesome history
Image by Wikimedia Commons user Mstyslav Chernov.
May day protests in Turkey turned violent as the Turkish police fired tear-gas and rubber-bullets at demonstrators in Istanbul. Among those who attempted to reach Taksim Square Mosque, 200 were detained by authorities. Experts say that tensions were heightened especially after a crackdown and a failed coup on July 15 last year.
Clashes erupted in various parts of the city as demonstrators, led by members of left-wing parties and trade unions, took to the streets.
Taksim Square was the place that demonstrators gathered to celebrate Labour Day until 1977, when the protests turned ugly, with dozens killed on “Bloody May Day”.
Turkey’s Western allies say Ankara has sharply curtailed freedom of speech and other basic rights in the crackdown that followed a failed coup last year.
5. Oregon, United States: Pepsi takes centre stage
Screenshot from Twitter user Doug Brown.
And on the lighter side of things – Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad got disproven in real life. In a May Day protest in Portland, someone actually attempted to hand a can of Pepsi to law enforcement, in nearly the same fashion that Jenner did in the now widely-spoofed video.
But no, the crowd did not erupt into cheers. Rather, the officer simply did not react to the gesture. And other protesters pelted the police with Pepsi cans instead. Not so refreshing, after all.
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