The world marks 1 May in so many ways.
Many have reasons galore to celebrate. They feel the wealth they filtered through the sweat of their workers must be protected eternally.
But there are those whose only satisfaction is that they have the one day paid break from work.
And there are also those that commemorate the day with the pain of neglect and exploitation, just as much as the world over: many a working, slogging worker will see 1 May as just another working day.
In Malaysia, after six decades of independence, do we really have that many reasons to parade jubilantly on this International Workers’ Day?
For those endowed with intelligence, blessed with a silver spoon or frolicking in inherited wealth or even spoilt with corrupt opportunities, trumpeting about some milestones of greatness may seem right on Labour Day.
Likewise, for many ordinary peoples who have none of those blessings, but only government-created automatic job opportunities and relatively easy-to-obtain paper qualifications, Labour Day may also seem like an occasion to celebrate with relief.
But the rest of the population still cannot fathom why on earth we are unable to fix a reasonable minimum wage that is the norm in many other countries.
After over six decades of self-governance, we still cannot grasp the merits of guaranteeing a decent minimum wage.
We also must not forget how we have come to depend so much and so easily on cheap, exploitable foreign labour – all under the cover of a volley of claims. We are constantly led to believe the claim that Malaysians do not want the ‘three D’ – dirty, dangerous and demeaning – jobs.
But how do we explain the fact that many Malaysian single mothers and those with disabilities are struggling for basic or meaningful wages, reasonable work hours, and safety, health and other benefits for the menial jobs they do – like cleaning, washing or working as factory hands?
Remember, even Indonesia had to struggle long and hard to ensure that their citizens who come here as domestic workers are protected and paid a reasonable minimum wage and given fundamental benefits and rights as workers.
We falsely believe that since there are migrant workers in every developed nation, Malaysia too, as a fast-developing nation, has to attract workers from poorer nations.
But then, we flopped miserably in becoming a ‘new arrival’ into the circle of ‘developed nations’ by 2020. We do not know when and if ever we will become a developed nation so that people can take pride and joy in future Workers’ Day celebrations.
Leaving aside the minimum wage debacle and the comfortable benefits within the civil service, many ordinary workers are struggling.
For many, salaries barely rise. Benefits are discriminatory and inconsistent nationwide. Worker safety is highly questionable, given the health, mental, emotional and physical risks inherent in many types of employment.
Today, we still find many cases of exploitation of workers – albeit there have been improvements over the years to labour laws and workers’ rights, due mainly to the efforts of trade unions and NGOs.
When you have a long list of millionaires and even billionaires while the bulk of the population struggles with soaring inflation – where even buying onions and garlic is an important daily decision – how do we celebrate Workers’ Day with much fanfare?
When jobs can be easily axed while investors, stakeholders and owners safeguard and insulate themselves, how can Labour Day be meaningful for the affected workers?
The bottom-line is that when honesty, truth and compassion are buried, we stray away from the core teachings of our various religions.
When we pretend that we have uplifted human labour to its rightful place of dignity – when the reality reveals violations of workers’ rights – we have betrayed their cause.
These then are some reflections to contend with while we echo public and private sector fanfare on Labour Day.
Here is a nation that had abundant gas, oil, crops and minerals at its disposal at independence – only to now reel in pain over the cases of exploitation of human labour.