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For The Indian Worker, The 8-Hour Work Day Is A ‘Wild Joke’ – The Relevance Of May Day

Posted on May 2, 2016 in Society

By Nilesh Mondal:

A labourer stacks bricks on his head at the construction site of a residential complex in Kolkata February 28, 2015. India's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Saturday announced a budget aimed at high growth, saying the pace of cutting the fiscal deficit would slow as he seeks to boost investment and ensure that ordinary people benefit. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS CONSTRUCTION EMPLOYMENT) - RTR4RIJ7
Image creidt: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri.

On my way to college, I often share seats with a couple of daily commuters who work at a nearby sponge iron factory. Unkempt clothes and sunken and often bloodshot eyes aside, they don’t have to be coaxed much to talk about their workplace. They tell me they have 12-14 hour shifts at the factory, often working in hazardous environments. Their wages are meager, and they have no provision of provident funds or pension, or even basic medical facilities to avail. On hearing about factories that are bound by rule to have no more than a maximum of eight-hour working shifts, they smirk.

These things are wild jokes, they say, and in a state where jobs are scarce and cut-throat competitive to get into, complaints of better work ethics fall on deaf ears.

This reminds me of May Day at our school.

At that time, we were too young to realise the true significance behind having a day to celebrate the people who constantly toil behind the scenes. It was just a holiday to us, albeit one where we had to attend a compulsory assembly first, and give out cards and mementos to the ‘Grade D’ staff of our school.

The peons, and the gardeners, and the electricians, all of them often sat in the front row, and when we cheered and applauded for them, some of them cried. That was what piqued our collective curiosities.

Why did they cry?

Even after passing out of school and learning all about worker’s movements demanding the eight-hour workday and better standards of living, and how a proletarian holiday celebration was used as a means to attaining the same, the question from my childhood still baffles me. Why did they cry?

Have workers been kept in the darkness of poverty and oppression for so long, that the mere thought of celebrating their work seems alienating to the point of intimidation to them?

What happens to them, the ordinary workers, the flag bearers of the ‘prosperity’ every industrial revolution has wrought upon us? Are they happy?

In my own city, every morning, hundreds of manual labourers flock to the railway station early in the morning from every village nearby. The station breaks into bubbles of conversations and bargaining, as they desperately try to sell their day to the contractors looking for workers. Lately, conditions have been worsening. The labourers now stand by the open roads, in summer heat or the monsoon deluge, trying to flag down passing vehicles, begging them for a day’s work.

Some workers get a day’s worth of toiling under the open sun, for a wage that has been dropping in amount constantly the more their collective desperation for work rises. Most return back home with empty hands, to empty pots and pans and eyes of their families.

Jute mills and sugar mills and other smaller industries have seen lockouts and mass unemployment of its workers. Larger industries exploit their workers to further their own magnanimous profits. Workers in these establishments are denied the right to form unions, or demand basic amenities. They are overworked regularly and have no provisions for paid leaves. All in all, the overall condition of workers around the state, and the country, keeps turning bleaker.

The daily commuters get down at their scheduled stop and proceed to start another back-breaking, low-paid, exploited day of work.

Our school still celebrates May Day every year with a holiday and cards and applause for the ‘Grade D’ staff. They still cry, sitting in the front row.

Mayday remains equally relevant and significant as it was, one and a half century ago.