“Without labor, nothing prospers.” – Sophocles
Labor Day has a unique history dating back to 1st May 1886 when labor unions in the United States of America decided to go on a strike. They demanded that workers should not be allowed to work more than 8 hours a day. The strike was followed by a bomb blast in Chicago's Haymarket Square on the 4th of May.
The incident, also popularly known as “Haymarket Affair” made May 1, became one of the significant dates in history and was earmarked to celebrate and honor the contribution of working men and women. These protests were instrumental in establishing the 8-hour work day norm in India and other countries in the world. Since then the 1st of May is celebrated as the International Labor Day (International Workers Day or May Day) in many countries across the world, including India.
Interestingly in India, the very first Labor Day celebration was held in Madras (Chennai), on 1 May 1923 and was championed by one of the founders of the Communist Party of India, Malayapuram Singaravelu Chettiar. One of the grand reminders of the first Labor Day celebration in the country is the Labor Statue that stands tall on the Marina Beach in Chennai.
Today, all over the world, the red flag that popularly represents the working class is unfurled on this day. The day is marked with public speeches delivered by leaders of various political parties, celebrating the true spirit and solidarity of the working class. It's the day when workers get together and showcase their strength which indicates how effectively they can struggle to bring in positive reforms for the working class of the society.
But is this show of strength from workers alone enough to bring about a change in their lives? How can organizations contribute to build a fairer, securer, a much better, and more empathetic world for the working class? Given the havoc COVID-19 is playing on the global economy, what are those aspects of their lives which still need to be ameliorated?
While the COVID-19 pandemic has created havoc across countries and businesses, one segment that is among the most affected is the labor workforce. Job security has gained huge importance in times where nothing is certain. Many governments have issued advisories for companies to not lay off their employees during this crisis time. But does this solve the problem?
The ILO Monitor 2nd edition: COVID-19 and the World of Work report has described the coronavirus pandemic as “the worst global crisis since World War II”. Worldwide, two billion people work in the informal sector (mostly in emerging and developing economies) and are particularly at risk, the report said, adding that the COVID-19 crisis is already affecting tens of millions of informal workers. The report said the disruption to the world's economies caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to wipe out 6.7 percent of working hours globally in the second quarter of this year, the equivalent of 195 million jobs worldwide.
“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies. We have to move fast, decisively, and together. The right, urgent, measures could make the difference between survival and collapse,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. With the right measures, we can limit the impact and the scars it leaves. As governments and organizations, we need to ensure that no working professional goes to sleep at night worrying about whether his job will remain the next day.
“In the good times, we share the gains,” said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo. “In times of crisis, we share the pain - each making mutual sacrifices to sustain businesses and save jobs.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on working hours and earnings, globally. With most factories, shops, and workstations shut, a significant portion of the workforce, especially the blue-collar workers are left with no work. Worldwide, two billion people work in the informal sector (mostly in emerging and developing economies) and are particularly at risk. As the businesses are not operational even they struggle to manage cost and have enough cash flow to take care of the financial well-being of their staff. But what the workforce needs right now is sufficient income to survive and lead a healthy and safe life.
The current global health crisis urges the leaders and the government to relook at how they distribute the cash and take care of the entire community. This is why many business leaders and ministers across the globe have taken pay cuts to ensure fair distribution of cash. Although ensuring fair compensation during the current crisis is easier said than done. But it is the responsibility of every leader and decision-maker to take care of everyone in their community.
To tackle this challenge, ILO suggests measures like extending social protection, supporting employment retention (i.e. short-time work, paid leave, other subsidies), and financial and tax relief, including for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, they propose fiscal and monetary policy measures, and lending and financial support for specific economic sectors.
Take each decision wisely, remember, “Everything needs to be done to minimize the damage to people at this difficult time.”
Health and safety
The ongoing COVID 19 pandemic has exposed the threat to the working class with respect to health and safety. This May day, it’s useful to remember the egalitarian fight for worker rights, especially at a time where there are lesser protections and safeguards in place. As the world of work moves towards the gig economy, it’s necessary to reckon with the need for basic health and safety standards - right from health insurance schemes to workplace wellness measures.
In India, millions of migrant workers were left stranded due to a lockdown and many of them decided to walk home across hundreds of miles. In neighboring Bangladesh, garment workers are strained to get back to work even with the heightened health risk due to lack of options to beat hunger. In Singapore, a growing number of COVID 19 positive cases were attributed to poor housing among foreign migrant workers. All of these cases show the importance of health and safety and the need for strong labor safeguards.
From food, accommodation, travel, and work, there’s a need to focus on the well being of the worker. For a long time, companies have restricted benefits for contract workers - even when their services are essential to continue running, this has to change. There is a need to go above and beyond a purely profit-centered approach.
More empathetic employers
Every day we hear of millions of workers losing their jobs on account of the COVID-19 endemic. Being at the lowest rung of all economic models, workers are also the most vulnerable and unfortunately more disposable. The International Labor Organization has warned of job losses in the hundreds of millions as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches out over the coming months as mentioned above. Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe globally-both financially and mentally-and it is not just the duty of countries but also organizations around the world to work together to find solutions that help all segments of our global society, particularly those that are most vulnerable or least able to help themselves. In these times of crisis, organizations need to be more empathetic towards the workers, as the choices that they make today will directly affect the way this crisis unfolds and so the lives of billions of people. It is time organizations and countries move away from development models that look upon workers merely as a disposable asset class but rather be more empathetic towards their physical, financial, and mental well-being-crisis or no crisis.
Better working environment
Aside from the job scope itself, one factor that significantly influences how employees feel about work is the environment. Given the pandemic times, we are living in, fostering a work environment for workers will prove to be detrimental for the business continuity.
The present situation has not only created fear among the workers but also there is a lack of trust due to regular layoffs and pay cuts. Offer a work environment which is built on trust, transparent communication, better grievance redressal, and a workplace that evokes a sense of unity.
In addition to it, given the tough situation, leverage the concept of positive reinforcement- praise and acknowledge your workers’ efforts more. Employees will naturally feel valued by the organization for what they put in. Such understanding is healthy for the organization because employees will be willing to go the extra mile in tough situations like these.
This Labor Day, remember to salute the determination and hard work of countless workers who have kept the global economic engine running despite being hit the hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.