1 May – International Labour Day

Labour Day Poster with a man's hand holding a hard hat and a tool belt with various tool around the man's waist.
International Labour Day Poster on Pixabay; No attribution necessary

Why Observe a Marxist Festival?

International Labour Day, 1 May, is a public holiday in many countries of the world. This date was chosen in 1889 by the Marxist International Socialist congress meeting in Paris. What they wanted was a great international demonstration in support of demands for the eight-hour working day. In 1904, the Sixth Conference of the Second International called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”

So… a communist festival. Why should we even celebrate it in the ‘blue’ parts of capitalist England, like Kent? Shouldn’t we just stick to the older traditional first of May festivities, such as erecting the Maypole, ironing the ribbons, and going to watch Morris dancers at Barming bridge in Maidstone?

Where Are the Proles of Yesteryear?

These days, it is uncertain as to how to identify ‘the proletariat’. 70 years ago and pre-Thatcher, it was much clearer: they worked in factories, mines or transport. They belonged to big unions like the National Union of Railwaymen. Most years, one or other union was on strike for days or weeks. Since the 1980s, with the closure of mines, and the decline of manufacturing, union membership has fallen.

“In 1979, 53 percent of workers were union members; by 1999 this had fallen to 28 percent. In 1980 around 70 percent of employees’ wages were set by collective bargaining; by the mid-1990s this had sharply fallen to less than 45 percent.”

You can’t Get Me…

Compared to 1979 when there were over 12 million union members, by 2021 there were 6.56 union members in the UK. A slightly higher proportion of women employees belong to a union at 27.2 percent compared to men at 20.2 percent. The largest unions, such as UNITE and UNISON, both with around 1.3 million members, consist of people who work in offices (or now home) rather than in factories, ‘white collar’ rather than ‘blue collar’, UNISON being for public servants and UNITE in the private sector.

40 unions are in the list of those certified under the UK labour law of 1992. This means they have met the criteria of being independent of the employer, and thus allowed collective bargaining rights. This is not a list consisting only of the stereotypical proletariat. It includes hospital consultants, pilots, academics, probation officers and the British Medical Association. This explains why the junior doctors can strike over unreasonable overtime, and academics over pension cuts.

Some Unions are Against Strikes

Although most unions in this list have affiliated to the Trade Union Congress (TUC), there are some that notably have not. For example, the Probation Officers, and a small proportion of teachers (in the VOICE) affiliate to GFTU instead, as they pledge never to strike. This might seem counter-intuitive. What is the point of belonging to a union without gaining the ultimate bargaining weapon, of the strike?

It’s not Just about Pay

Actually there is quite a lot of work that unions do regularly that is not just about wages. For example, health and safety is a major regular area of work, probably increased recently by the need to ensure covid-secure workplaces, especially in schools. Then there is the need to represent individual workers who get into disputes with the employer. In the last resort, the union may fund legal support on key cases.

Some Workers don’t Feel the Need

What about the more than 75 percent of employees who are not members of unions? Presumably most of them work in small enterprises and do not feel the need to join a union, or pay monthly dues to a union. The 1996 Employment Act defines three categories: self-employed, employed and ‘worker’. A ‘worker’ provides services under contract, but does not own the business. Unfortunately the definition of a casual worker is still rather vague in UK law, and employers can take advantage of this in withholding rights, like sickness, holiday or maternity pay to those they deem are ‘casual’.

It’s the Gig Economy and Zero Hours

In recent decades, the focus is less on the proletariat, as unions have gained most of the rights, such as the eight hour workday, which were the focus of campaigning on in the 1880s. Nowadays, it is the ‘precariat’ that is the focus, with the growth of ‘zero hours’ contracts, of driving and delivery work (Uber and Deliveroo), and seasonal picking. For instance, the Ken Loach film “Sorry we missed you” shines a light on the plight of a delivery driver faced with exploitative hours and costs.

Seasonal picking and work in chicken farms, done by workers recruited from the poorer parts of Europe such as Romania or Ukraine, is a non-unionised sector of work ripe for exploitation, as portrayed in the 2007 novel “Two Caravans” by the Ukrainian writer Marina Lewycka. Recent news about a Ukrainian couple fleeing from ‘slavery’ under such farm contracts shows that there is still exploitation of seasonal workers. This undoubtedly increases the disincentive of any workers, either from within the UK or from abroad, to take up such farm contracts which will eventually lead to less food from UK farms.

Exploitation and Human Trafficking

Human trafficking or slavery is abhorrent but there are some sectors that are prone to it, especially with female workers. For example, work in nail bars was probably the aspiration of the Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in the cross-channel lorry in 2019. Prostitution is also work on the shady side that can be supplied by traffickers.

Work inside the home, as a nanny or au pair, can be a concealed type of slavery if the worker is unaware of labour laws and is intimidated by language barriers or fear of being categorised as an illegal migrant. This is why ‘being trafficked’ is one ground for appeal under British immigration law.

Work on ships is also likely to attract unscrupulous employers who want to contract workers outside the protection of any country’s labour laws. This is what DP World is trying to do by sacking 800 of its employees in order to employ cheaper foreign labour on its P&O ferries.

The union RMT has been campaigning vigorously in Dover against this. But it is uncertain whether pressure they can exert, either for a boycott of the ferry, or for better UK labour laws that can nail international shipping enterprises, will be sufficient to stop the recruitment of ferry staff on low pay and casual contracts.

A focus on health and safety has caused the ship ‘Pride of Kent’ to be detained in the harbour for several weeks. Significantly it failed a safety test not just over equipment but also over the lack of safety training of the new crew. RMT has a good track record of systemic inspections of ships for health and safety compliance. (A pity it advised its members in 2016 to vote for Brexit on the grounds that the EU is a capitalist conspiracy.)

Where do your Clothes Come from, and Who makes them?

1 May is international labour day, so it can be noted that the most outstanding campaign matters for labour rights in the 21st century concern goods made with low-paid labour in poor countries that are then exported to rich markets such as the UK. Clothing is a prime example of an industry that operates on the labour of mostly women in countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Lesotho.

In 2019 I once spent a few hours looking at labels in all the clothing stories in Ashford High Street. I did not find a single label that said “made in UK”.

There is an argument for the clothing industry being a first step provider of jobs on the economic ladder. In Leicester, where I used to work teaching English to immigrant women, it was obvious that many women were very happy in this work even with low pay and long hours. But some firms (lately some of those supplying Boo-Hoo from Leicester) are prone to push down the pay and conditions as low as they dare, sometimes illegally. The law is only as strong as the inspection of it.

Campaigning for labour rights internationally

The UK, under the Tories, skimps on complex factory inspections, so getting away with it is easier. And it is much worse in poor countries where, even with enhanced labour law, such as in Bangladesh, some factories still escape notice and continue to sell to UK retailers who claim they are buying only from factories that comply. (Ethical consumer 192 Sept-Oct 2021 p 14.) 

So it is still important to keep up the campaigning for labour rights internationally. The Ethical Consumer magazine does an excellent job in issuing measures for ‘Worker Rights’ in every product table they publish, whether it is about clothing or coffee plantations. So not only unions but also individual consumers, need to be continually aware of the latest battlegrounds for labour rights. It is very much an international battleground in the 21st century.