SEOUL: Thousands of trade union members and activists were marking May Day on Wednesday by marching through Asia’s capitals and demanding better working conditions and expanding labour rights.
A major South Korean umbrella trade union also issued a joint statement with a North Korean workers’ organisation calling for the Koreas to push ahead with engagement commitments made during a series of inter-Korean summits last year. Many of the plans agreed to between the Koreas, including joint economic projects, have been held back by a lack of progress in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
May Day rallies were also being held in other parts of Asia, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Cambodia and Myanmar. Other parts of the world were set to have rallies as well.
In Sri Lanka, major political parties called off traditional May Day rallies due to security concerns following the Easter bombings that killed 253 people and were claimed by militants linked to the Daesh.
French authorities announced tight security measures for May Day demonstrations, with the interior minister saying there was a risk that “radical activists” could join antigovernment yellow vest protesters and union workers in the streets of Paris and across the country. More than 7,400 police will be deployed, aided by drones to give them an overview of the protests and a quicker way to head off potential violence.
Wearing headbands and swinging their fists, the protesters in Seoul rallied in streets near City Hall, marching under banners denouncing deteriorating working conditions and calling for equal treatment and pay for non-regular workers.
The protesters also called for the government to ratify key International Labour Organization conventions that would strengthen South Korean workers’ rights for organisation and collective bargaining, and take firmer steps toward reforming “chaebol”, or huge family-owned conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy and are often accused of corruption and monopolistic behaviours. South Korean laws ban government employees and laid-off workers from forming or joining labour unions.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which organised the protests and issued the joint statement with the North Korean organisation, said more than 27,000 demonstrators turned out for Wednesday’s marches in Seoul. May Day rallies were also held in other major South Korean cities, including Busan, Gwangju and Daejeon.
“A new caste system has taken hold as the discrimination of non-regular workers in wages and job status has caused extreme social divide,” KCTU chairman Kim Myeong-hwan said at the Seoul rally. “Small merchants, the poor, the disabled and every other member of the socially weak are living precariously in an unequal society that’s dominated by chaebol and offers only a punctured social safety net.”
In Bangladesh, hundreds of garment workers and members of labour organisations rallied in Dhaka, the capital, to demand better working conditions and higher wages.
Nazma Akter, president of one of Bangladesh’s largest unions, said female garment workers were also demanding six months of maternity leave and protection against sexual abuse and violence in the workplace.
Bangladesh has thousands of garment factories employing millions of workers, and the industry generates around $30 billion in exports a year.
Construction workers, bus drivers, freelancers and domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia joined a Labor Day march through central Hong Kong. The protesters marched from Victoria Park to the main government offices, some carrying banners reading “Maxed Out!”
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which organised the march, is demanding a maximum standard work week of 44 hours and an hourly minimum wage of at least 54.7 Hong Kong dollars ($7). Construction workers called for legislation to ensure work safety, while freelance workers are seeking basic labour protections such as the right to recover unpaid wages.
Thousands of low-paid workers took to the streets in Indonesia to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Labourers in Jakarta, the capital, gathered at national monuments and other places, shouting their demands.
“We demand the rights of workers and their families,” said Joko Harianto, head of the national trade union. “People think things are good, but actually these rights are very difficult to obtain.”
In Taiwan, several thousand workers were marching through the streets of Taipei, the capital, to demand better working conditions. They carried banners and flags and chanted for more days off and higher overtime pay.
Many wore baseball caps and colourful clear plastic ponchos over their clothes, though a light rain ended as the march got underway. Taiwan’s official Central News Agency said 6,000 people joined the march.
In the Philippines, thousands of workers and labour activists marched near the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila. They demanded that the government of President Rodrigo Duterte address labour issues including a minimum-wage increase and the end of contractualization for many workers.
Police said about 5,000 people joined the march, which comes just over a week before senatorial elections are held in the country. One labour group said its members would not vote for any candidate endorsed by Duterte and burnt an effigy of Duterte.