May Day 2019
May Day and human rights
Tonima Mahmud Antora :
Today, the labourers are enjoying a 8 hour working day. We should have a glance at the root or the origin which gave them the freedom from 10-16 hour of work for a day. For this right, many homes were burned to the ground. For getting a holiday at the weekend, a boy was killed for protesting against the employers. The labour class fought for their rights. As a result, they are enjoying a short working hour and a weekly holiday too. The sacrifice of these people changed the situation. In remembrance of the struggle and contribution of the working class and to enlighten the new generation about their great movement; many states and the people of the world celebrate the May Day every year.
In medieval and modern Europe, before 19th century, May 1st had been celebrated as the return of the Spring. The origin of this celebration was the ancient agricultural rituals of the Greeks and the Romans. This celebration included the gathering of wild flowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, the crowning of a May King and Queen, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, around which people could dance. But during 19th century, there occurred a buzzard situation when huge number of men, women and children were dying every year from poor working conditions and long working hours. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (now-a-days, it is The American Federation of labour, in short AFL) arranged a Convention at Chicago. The main proclamation of this committee was "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after May 1, 1886." On May 1, 1886; from 13,000 business organizations, more than 3,00,000 workers walked out of their jobs all over the country. Industrial workers participated in a nationwide strike demanding an 8-hour workday. The protest in Chicago continued for several days. On May 3, there was a brawl between police and the workers of McCormick Reaper Works, and the strike went off. The next night, the strikers gathered in the Haymarket Square. An unknown person threw a bomb towards the police squad. As a result, seven policemen were killed and 60 more got wounded. In return, police answered with an open fire on the crowd, killing several men and wounding 200 more. Today, this incident is known as the Haymarket Affair. The International Socialist Conference declared May 1 as International Holiday for all the working men and women.
Literature always gave us the touch of life and society. The social condition of 18th century was not suitable for the workers, specially for the child labourers, that we find in the writings of William Blake. His 'The Chimney Sweeper' gives us a deep outlook of the condition of the child chimney workers. These chimney child labourers were deprived of all basic rights. Those boys, four or five years old, were sold to clean chimneys. They were small in size and could easily go inside the chimneys. The pathetic condition of these little chimney workers was socially acceptable at that time. William Blake described :
" When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
A morally degraded society condition was portrayed here as a father sold his son to work as a chimney sweeper. Again, we can see in this poem-
" There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
'Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot can not spoil your white hair.'"
One chimney worker boy was consoling another boy Tom Darce saying that Tom's hair would never be spoiled by the chimney walls again. Because his hairs were already got shaved by the chimney walls while they were working. So when there would be no hair, how the chimney walls could spoil the hairs ? Thus, they made their self convincing satisfaction and went to sleep. These are some of the sceneries of child labour in the West in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Africans have their 200 years of slavery history to narrate. Among the types of slaveries, the Plantation slavery was the worst one. The demand of the domestic plantation slavery increased during the 19th century, after the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Ezekiel Mphahleleis, a south African writer in his short story 'The master of Doornvlei', portrayed a feudal background in which the slaves protested against the master. This protest is the symbolization of the factory workers' protest on May Day.
He made an amalgamation of Feudalism and Capitalism. In this story, Sarel Britz, the master had great faith over one of his most obedient slave Mfukeri. To obey his master's order, Mfukeri pushed one little child to work in the heavy rain and afterwards the child died of pneumonia. A protest grew among the workers against the master, but Mfukeri was still in the support of his master. At last the realization came to Mfukeri that the master is a white skin man who only knows how to outrage the black slaves in various ways, and he is a black skin man who can support his fellow slaves to get the freedom. At last they all left the farm house, and one morning the master found his farm fully isolated.
We can mention more African writers who gave their best to show us the dark side of slavery, such as- Friedrick Douglas's Slave Narratives, James Baldwin's Slave Narratives etc. In Beloved by Tony Morrison, we find how pathetic can be a woman's life while she was working as a slave in a farm full of men! After suffering much of pain she decided to kill her younger daughter as she never wanted her to be a slave girl in future. In Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, we find a modern girl who mysteriously time travels from present to the past slavery time in North America; and came up with all the ideas of slavery that her ancestors had suffered.
In Bangladesh, we still suffer from labour issues. There are news that workers get victim of the outrageous behaviour of masters. There are garments workers who are still working under tight schedule. There are industries where high voltage bulbs are just above the heads of the workers.
The construction workers work under unsafe conditions some of them don't get any kind of safety belts or masks or cloths to save themselves from sudden accidents. As a consequence, workers face accidental death.
Kazi Nazrul Islam The National poet of Bangladesh and the poet of the deprived and suppressed humanity in his poem 'KuliMojur' upheld the greatness and contribution of the day labourers who worked hard form the morning till night to build the luxurious multi-storied buildings of the civilized society. They made ships, buses, trucks, railways etc., to smoothen the daily life of others, though they can not manage to feed their families as well as themselves when they reach home. The poet presented revolutionary ideas to fight and overcome all the obstacles to enjoy a blissful life without having bounded or neglected.
Poet Sukanta Bhattacharya's poem on May Day is very much inspiring and makes the working class aware about their basic rights. The name of the poem is 'Poyla May er Kobita'.-'A poem for 1st May'.
Some lines from the poem :
" Red fire flames had spread from one skyline to another, /What more can it be while living a dog's life?/ How long will you be pleased/With all the scraps of others?/Express your inner feelings/With vague ow-ow moaning?/How long will you trudge in empty stomach?
Then deny your tenability, /Reject your obedience./Let's go, instead of bony bodies/Search for fresh blood/ Let our barbecuing food be prepared in the red fire flames/ Covering up the tether blur there would rise, /Lion's mane in everyone's scruff." (Translation : Tonima Mahmud Antora)
Let all the deprived workers of the world, who are still under inhuman suppression, be free having their human right and dignity. The 'May Day' has come with call to rise for the workers' solidarity to reach the ultimate goal.
(The writer is Adjunct Lecturer, Northern University, Dhaka)