May Day, May Day

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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. 

The World Bank is the organisation responsible for alleviating poverty across the globe. It provides loans to low- and middle-income countries to assist with development. But as with all banks, these loans come with conditions, such as structural adjustment programmes. These conditions have contributed to leaving countries buried in debt, instead of helping them prosper more. 

The move probably won’t astonish too many observers. It’s of course not the first time advancements in workers’ rights have been knocked back by the corporate world. Since the Reagan/Thatcher era, and with the rise of neoliberalism, workers have had to contend with privatisation, outsourcing, and policies like zero-hours contracts. This has squeezed low-skilled workers out of the job market in developed countries. Meanwhile, multinational corporations move their factories to countries where labour laws have not advanced as far, or are not enforced as rigorously. And now, automation is replacing human workers in the services industry, as well as manufacturing. 

If this is the World Bank’s philosophy, how will it affect their future policies? The next time they bailout a country on the verge of bankruptcy, will they insist on companies eliminating minimum wages, or being able to get rid of employees without having to pay redundancies? The topic was reported by the media during the World Bank’s spring meetings, but there has been little sustained interest. So as the workers’ holiday arrives, how will workers act to protect their rights? Before the global financial institutions make May Day a thing of the past in honour of the market?

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