x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

May Day marchers mantra: Higher wages and end to austerity

Tens of thousands of Tunisians march for national unity in Tunis, while in Asia and Europe workers staged marches and demonstrations, calling for higher wages and an end to austerity measures.

Demonstrators join a protest against the economic policies of the Spanish government during May Day in Madrid.
Demonstrators join a protest against the economic policies of the Spanish government during May Day in Madrid.

Tens of thousands of Tunisians marked Internatonional Workers Day yesterday with a march for national unity in Tunis, the capital, in which they chanted slogans borrowed from the uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over a year ago. In Asia and Europe workers staged marches and demonstrations, calling for higher wages and an end to austerity measures.

On Habib Bouguiba avenue in Tunis, a symbol of the revolution, more than 20,000 Tunisians marched, waving the country’s red and white flags while singing the national anthem,

Protesters chanted: “bread, freedom and national dignity” as well as “work, freedom and national dignity”, repeating key slogans used during the uprising that ousted Ben Ali on January 14 last year.

“People want national unity. Work brings back national dignity. No fear nor terror, power in the hands of the people,” cried the marchers.

Earlier, thousands of workers protested in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and other Asian nations, with demands for wage hikes amid soaring oil prices – a common theme. They said their take-home pay was outstripped by rising consumer prices and increasing cost of education.

In the Philippine capital, Manila, more than 8,000 members of a labour alliance, many clad in red shirts and waving red streamers, marched under a brutal sun for 4km to a heavily barricaded bridge near the Malacanang presidential palace where there were thousands of riot police, Manila police chief Alex Gutierrez said.

Another group of left-wing workers burnt a huge effigy of President Benigno Aquino III, depicting him as a lackey of the United States and big business.

In Indonesia, protesters demanding higher wages paraded through traffic-clogged streets in the capital, Jakarta, where 16,000 police and soldiers were deployed at locations including the presidential palace and airports.

In Taiwan, several thousand anti-government protesters marched through downtown Taipei, demanding higher wages, lower school tuition and better conditions for foreign workers. Workers waving the Thai flag rallied in Bangkok for better pay.

“It is always the case that low-income groups across Asia feel a disproportionately larger impact of rising prices,” said Wai Ho Leong, a Singapore-based economist with Barclays Capital. “Coupled with rising inflation expectations, the case is building to do more for lower income [workers]. Minimum wages are one way.”

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 500 people rallied, calling for a higher minimum wage than the one announced Monday by prime minister Najib Razak.

Taking the baton from Asia, workers turned out in droves in Greece, France and Spain, the latest focus of a debt nightmare that has already forced three eurozone countries to seek financial bailouts.

Under a grey, threatening Madrid sky that reflected the national mood, 25-year Adriana Jaime admitted she turned up because she speaks three foreign languages and has a master’s degree as a translator, but works for what she derided as peanuts and sees her future as grim at best.

“I am here because there is no future for the young people of this country,” she said as marchers walked up the city’s main north-south boulevard, protesting health care and education spending cuts and other austerity measures taken by the new conservative government. Many carried black and white placards, with the word NO and a pair of red scissors pictured inside the O.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is trying desperately to cut a bloated deficit, restore investor confidence in Spain’s public finances, lower the 24.4 per cent jobless rate, and fend off fears it will join Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing a bailout.

Ana Lopez, a 44-year-old civil servant, said May Day is sacred for her but this year in particular, arguing that the government is doing nothing to help workers and that the economic crisis is benefiting banks.

“Money does not just disappear. It does not fly away. It just changes hands, and now it is with the banks,” Ms Lopez said. “And the politicians are puppets of the banks.”

In France, tens of thousands of workers, leftists and union leaders were marking May Day with marches and rallies, in an optimistic mood ahead of presidential elections on Sunday that a Socialist is expected to win for the first time since 1988.

Anger has emerged during the campaign at austerity measures pushed by European Union leaders and President Nicolas Sarkozy. Many voters fear Mr Sarkozy will erode France’s welfare and worker protections, and see him as too friendly with the rich. Challenger and poll favourite Francois Hollande has promised high taxes on the rich.

In debt-crippled Greece, more than 2,000 people marched through central Athens in subdued May Day protests centred on the country’s harsh austerity. Minor scuffles broke out in Athens when young men targeted political party stands, destroying two and partially burning another. There were no injuries.

Around 100,000 people in Moscow – including President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Vladimir Putin – took part in the main May Day march through the city centre – though not to protest the government.

Television images showed the two leaders happily chatting with participants on the clear-and-cool spring day. Banners and placards criticised the opposition movement that has become more prominent in Moscow over the past half-year.

One read “spring has come, the swamp has dried up,” referring to Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square, the site of some of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent months.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse