May Day protests: From Bangladesh to Europe, angry workers rally in the tens of thousands

But this year's May Day demonstrations come on the heels of the tragic Bangladesh factory collapse, a potent symbol for many of the importance of workers' rights.

Vincent Yu/AP
Workers and protesters hold a huge banner march to the government office during a May Day rally in Hong Kong, Wednesday. Hundreds of workers, local labor right groups, and striking dockworkers join the annual rally to demand better wages and working conditions.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a raucous crowd descended on the city center with signs and drums, chanting and waving banners demanding the death penalty for the owner of a factory where more than 400 people died in a building collapse last week.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, some of the tens of thousands of demonstrators marching through the city came dressed as ants – complete with bright red outfits and antennae – to depict the exploitation of workers. 

And in Greece, trains, buses, and ferries sat vacant and hospitals nearly empty as thousands of public sector employees walked off the job in a one-day strike.

Each year, May 1, better known as May Day, is marked with labor rallies and strikes around the world. And this year's holiday came at a particularly prescient moment in many parts of the world. 

From Europe, where the bite of austerity has left many facing down unemployment and reduced benefits, to South and Southeast Asia, a region cluttered with precariously-built factories similar to the one that collapsed last week in Bangladesh, demonstrators gathered to vent outrage and demand reform.

“My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless,” yelled one Bangladeshi protestor through a crackling loudspeaker, according to the Associated Press.

As the march wove through downtown Dhaka, rescue workers in the industrial suburb of Savar continued their search for bodies and survivors in the rubble of Rana Plaza, which collapsed suddenly on April 24 with thousands of garment workers inside.

The disaster at the factory, which manufactured clothing for several low-end Western retailers, touched off global outrage about the working conditions of garment workers across the developing world. In Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, workers rallied for higher wages and safer working conditions. In Manila, Philipines, where labor unions are banned, workers marched to demand the right to organize. And in Hong Kong, thousands turned out in support of striking dock workers, calling for wages that would help close the income gap between the country’s rich and its poor.

And that was all before Europe woke up.

There has "never been a May 1 with more reason to take to the streets,” one Spanish union leader told Reuters during a march in Madrid this morning, where protestors carried signs reading "austerity ruins and kills" and "reforms are robbery.” (Read the Monitor's feature about how Spaniards are increasingly flocking to the countryside to cut costs and find new jobs.)

In Greece, where the government recently announced that it would lay off 180,000 civil servants over the next two years – the first such cuts in 100 years – a strike shut down public transit across Athens.  

And in France, which saw unemployment rose again last month, marchers carried banners reading, “It’s too much! Alternatives exist” and “Where are the real socialists in our government?”

An exception to the doom and gloom of this year’s May Day was Russia, where a festive celebration of the holiday harks back to Soviet times. Indeed, many of those who gathered in the streets of Moscow were buoyant, Euronews reported.

“The atmosphere is excellent. It’s a holiday for us, the beginning of something new, bright, and joyful,” one demonstrator told reporters.

May 1 is a national holiday in some 80 countries around the world, and its ties to labor advocacy date back to 1886, when American police killed 10 protestors at a rally for an eight-hour workday in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. International socialist organization and labor unions declared it a day of commemoration and action soon after.

Ironically, however, May Day is not celebrated in the United States. In the early 1890s, fearing the “socialist” overtones of the holiday, President Grover Cleveland quickly declared an alternate holiday, beginning the American tradition of celebrating Labor Day on the first Monday of September. 

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