t’s time once again to mark May Day, the international holiday for workers. And given that this decade is seeing the centenaries of many events that had a major impact on 20th century life, perhaps it’s also a good time to reflect on why the Worker’s Holiday was considered necessary. A century ago, manual labourers were expendable. Worksites were dangerous places, and an injury or illness meant no income. Company owners and managers cared little about their staff. It was the time that moved W. B. Yeats to pen the scathing lines:
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone.
The workers’ rights movements, and the establishment of unions, saw the end of child labour, the initiation of a two-day weekend, a 40-hour work week, minimum wage, holiday pay, paid sick leave, maternity leave. A host of things we take for granted now, to the extent that many no longer see the need for unions.
But now a draft report by the World Bank is suggesting that all these measures be abandoned if they hinder a company from maximising its profits. It says “High minimum wages, undue restrictions on hiring and firing, strict contract forms, all make workers more expensive vis-à-vis technology.” The recommendations are part of the World Bank’s Development Report for 2019, which will focus on how automation and technology are impacting on jobs.