We may all have stories of when and how we realised the importance of Labour Day and the support staff in our daily lives – the labourers, sanitation workers, servers, cleaners, house help, tradesmen, healthcare workers and everyone else. I learned about Labour Day as a child in the boarding school. On May 1, our entire support staff – all our didi jis and bhaiya jis (bearer jis) would line up to attend an assembly and a programme prepared by the students for them in the hall, followed by games and an honouring ceremony. I learned I was comfortable, safe and carefree because there were people tirelessly working behind the scenes to make sure of the same.

Apart from learning about the importance of the support staff, the senior students took over their duties that day. We would perform the chores ourselves, serve, wash our utensils, clean the premises and so on. I comprehended deeply, towards the end of school life, how incomplete our lives were without them. Growing up, we realised that the workers were the backbone of the premises and the functioning of our comfortable lives.

There were several takeaways from the labour day celebration at school, the major one being that we must never, ever, forget something that could be both a lesson and a prayer: gratitude.

The History

Labour day emerges from a different story for different countries. The main reason, however, why this movement arose was owing to the unfair treatment of the labour class.

In the United States, it began as a protest campaign, on May 1, 1886, to support the eight-hour workday over fifteen hours per day of work. In India, however, Labour Day, also referred to as Shramik Diwas or Kamgar Din, was first celebrated in 1923, when the Labour Kisan Party organised the celebrations in Chennai (then Madras). The party marked the day in two places – one at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court and the other, at the Triplicane beach. Over time, the effort to acknowledge this day spread to other parts of the country. This is the day parades take place, organisations and trade unions arrange programmes and contests are held for the children and the public so they can understand the importance of fairness and gratitude towards workers.

Labour Day Shramik Divas
The Triumph of Labour Statue at the Marina Beach in Chennai – a striking reminder of the first Labour Day celebration in India. Photo credit: The Hindu

Workers’ rights are human rights

As we start the month with an ode to the labourers who have been the force behind the development of our country, we must realise that more than the celebration itself, it’s the acknowledgement of their rights which will truly mark our gratitude.

We’re a land of 522 million-plus labourers. Of the several debates surrounding globalisation and development, it’s workers’ rights which hold utmost importance. Workers’ rights are human rights, and all of us, in our capacities, have a moral and legal obligation to protect them. This involves creating an environment for fair working conditions, instead of practising a behaviour or policy that encourages exploitation or humiliation, especially in the post-COVID-19 world.

Apart from abiding by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) standards, it’s also the employers’ and citizens’ moral duty to maintain a safe and healthy working environment for labour. Respecting their rights becomes a fundamental duty therein, especially when a plethora of challenges including poor living standards, sanitation, poor pay, seasonal employment and security issues and child labour continue to plague them. Recognition of labourers will only make sense when we grant the labour force a fair place in everyday life.

Also Read: Govt. Labour Force Report Underestimated Female Participation

The plight of migrant workers

We witnessed how the lockdown pedestrianised several highways. The countrywide lockdown laid a disastrous effect on the migrant workers as thousands got trapped and, in the following days, the nation woke up to shocking images of railway stations being crowded by workers – clueless and longing to get back home – waiting. Despairing pictures of migrant workers, with bags on their heads, walking down highways in a desperate attempt to return to their families, followed soon after.

Migrant workers are a part of the country’s most vulnerable labour force. These workers have laid the foundation of the country’s infrastructure. They work at construction units, serve as delivery men, they work in factories, also as delivery boys, loaders, rickshaw pullers, or as fruits, vegetables and tea sellers by the roadside. As the COVID-19 situation accelerates, it’s required the government makes sure that those at heightened risk, including community health workers, sanitation workers poorly paid public service workers, who are at the forefront owing to their duties – are provided for with not only protective equipment, but also timely wages.

Also Read: Migrant Workers On The Move: Harsh Reality Of COVID-19 Lockdown

Most of us are in a position to find alternatives amid the lockdown covering food, work, stay and entertainment. The thing is, a population we can’t imagine is still out there in several metropolitans of the country waiting to return home, waiting to meet their loved ones, waiting to wrap their head around what suddenly struck their lives, lives which they were anyway struggling to lead one day at a time working tirelessly, providing for their families back home in their respective villages and towns.

Citizens across social media have been condemning the plight of workers who have been the most vulnerable in these times. While we’re visibly acknowledging workers, the bitter truth is that their condition today also arises from the reality of their invisibility from the pre-COVID-19 world.

The situation can only be resolved by practical steps that vouch to protect the workers in the unorganised sector. As per reports, states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are in talks with the Centre and planning for the travel and return of the migrant workers via special train services facilitating necessary physical distancing in the journey as well. The Centre has directed states to set up shelters for migrant workers who were not only without jobs but also could not get back home. With women labourers stranded owing to the crises, the authorities must look out more for them to make their menstrual health and hygiene a priority too.

While the respective state governments have announced welfare measures for workers whose lives have been disrupted terribly, we’ll have to wait and see the true effectiveness of the efforts being taken in times to come.

COVID-19 has disrupted human lives, and everything associated with it, in more ways we can imagine. It, therefore, becomes significant to reach out to the vulnerable and look out for their mental health. There’s a lot at stake here as loss of income and fear of uncertainty can take a huge toll on them. 

We can’t ignore the distress faced by the workers. So, what can we citizens sitting safely in our homes do? Reach out to our support staff, in any form who, directly or indirectly, make our lives better. We must check on them, find out how they’re doing. We’re all in a tough spot here, and empathy and gratitude will bring us together to thrive through this crisis.

Also Read: Remya Haridas: Daily Wage Labourer’s Daughter Goes To Parliament

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