PARIS — Workers and union leaders dusted off bullhorns and flags that had stayed furled during coronavirus lockdowns for slimmed down but still boisterous — and at times violent — May Day marches on Saturday, demanding more labour protections amid a pandemic that has turned economies and workplaces upside down.
In countries that mark May 1 as International Labour Day, the annual celebration of workers’ rights produced a rare sight during the pandemic: large and closely packed crowds, with marchers striding shoulder-to-shoulder with clenched fists behind banners.
In Turkey and the Philippines, police prevented the May Day protests, enforcing virus lockdowns and making hundreds of arrests. In France, some marchers scuffled with riot police, according to AP.
For labour leaders, the day was a test of their ability to mobilize workers in the face of the profound economic disruptions.
In France, thousands took to the streets with trade union banners and flags, hemmed in by and sometimes scuffling with riot police. The face masks worn by many marchers were a reminder of how much life has changed since the last traditional May Day celebrations — in 2019, before the spreading coronavirus wrecked lives and livelihoods and eroded civil liberties, often including the right to demonstrate.
Some demonstrations, constricted by coronavirus restrictions, were markedly less well-attended than those before the pandemic.
Russia saw just a fraction of its usual May Day activities amid a coronavirus ban on gatherings. The Russian Communist Party drew only a few hundred people to the laying of wreaths in Moscow. For a second straight year in Italy, May Day passed without the usual large marches and rock concerts.
But in France, Germany and other places where rallies were allowed, workers vented their concerns over jobs and protections. In Bosnia, coal miner Turni Kadric said he and his colleagues are “barely surviving.”
In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, thousands voiced anger at a new jobs law that critics fear will reduce severance pay, lessen restrictions for foreign workers and increase outsourcing as the nation seeks to attract more investment. Protesters in the capital of Jakarta laid mock graves on the street to symbolise hopelessness and marches were being held in some 200 cities.
In the Philippines capital of Manila, where a month-long coronavirus lockdown has been extended by two weeks amid a surge in infections, police prevented hundreds of workers from demonstrating at a public plaza, protest leader Renato Reyes said. But protesters did gather briefly at a busy Manila boulevard, demanding pandemic cash aid, wage subsidies and Covid-19 vaccines amid rising unemployment and hunger.
“Workers were largely left to fend for themselves while being locked down,” labor leader Josua Mata said.
In Turkey, a few labour leaders were allowed to lay wreaths in Istanbul’s Taksim Square but riot police stopped many others from reaching the plaza. The Istanbul governor’s office said 212 people were taken into custody for breaching coronavirus restrictions. Turks are barred from leaving home, except to collect essential food and medicine, under a lockdown until May 17 that aims to halt a surge in infections. Protests were also banned around Taksim Square.
In France, riot police scuffled with demonstrators in Paris and the southern city of Lyon. Burning roadblocks threw clouds of smoke into the Paris air. Police charged crowds in apparent efforts to catch suspected troublemakers. Broadcaster BFM-TV reported that police fired small amounts of tear gas. Police in Paris said they made 10 arrests. But the majority of the dozens of marches called nationwide in France passed off without incident.
In Germany, where previous May Day demonstrations have often turned violent, police deployed thousands of officers and warned that rallies would be halted if marchers failed to follow coronavirus restrictions. Protests in Berlin called for lower rents, higher wages and voiced other concerns. Also marching were far-right coronavirus deniers and opponents of anti-virus measures, police said.
In Italy, police faced off against a few hundred demonstrators in the northern city of Turin. In Rome, Italy’s head of state paid tribute to workers and health care workers.
“Particularly heavy has been the impact from the crisis on female labor and on the access of young people to jobs,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella said.