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Workers and activists across Europe and Asia hold May Day rallies to call for greater labor rights

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May 1, 2024
By The Associated Press

Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions gather to attend a rally on May Day in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Workers, activists and others across Europe and Asia took to the streets on Wednesday to mark May Day with protests over rising prices and government labor policies and calls for greater labor rights.

Police in Istanbul used tear gas and fired rubber bullets to disperse thousands of people who were attempting to break through a barricade and reach the city’s main Taksim square in defiance of a government ban on celebrating Labor Day at the landmark location.

At least 30 people, mostly members of a left-wing party, were earlier detained for trying to break through the barriers at another police blockade.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has long declared Taksim off-limits for rallies and demonstrations on security grounds, but some political parties and trade unions have vowed to march to the square, which holds symbolic value for labor unions.


In 1977, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a May Day celebration at Taksim, causing a stampede and killing 34 people.

On Wednesday, police erected barricades and sealed off all routes leading to the central Istanbul square. Public transport in the area was also restricted. Only a small group of trade union representatives was permitted to enter the square to lay a wreath at a monument in memory of victims of the 1977 incident.

May Day, which falls on May 1, is observed in many countries to celebrate workers’ rights. May Day events have also given many an opportunity to air general economic grievances or political demands.

In Athens, several thousand protesters joined May Day marches, as related labor strikes disrupted public transport and national rail services across Greece.

Nationwide strikes were led by the country’s largest union, which has demanded a return to collective bargaining after labor rights were scrapped during Greece’s severe 2010-18 financial crisis.

In Paris, protesters were gathering at the Place de la Republique to participate in a march led by France’s main unions, seeking better pay and working conditions. Pro-Palestinian groups and anti-Olympics activists are expected to join the march through the French capital, which will host the Summer Games in less than three months.

France remains tense, with recent protests from teachers, police officers and farmers following huge demonstrations last year against the rise in retirement age.

Unions have filed an open-ended strike notice to pressure the government into concessions. They said all sectors, including hospitals, will go on strike during the Games if the government does not adequately compensate people who are forced to work during the summer holidays.

In Indonesia, workers voiced anger at a new law they said violates their rights and hurts their welfare, and demanded protections for migrant workers abroad and a minimum wage raise.

Thousands of workers from Jakarta’s satellite cities of Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi were expected to join marches in the capital, said Said Iqbal, the president of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions.

They gathered amid a tight police presence near the National Monument park, waving colorful flags and chanting slogans against the Job Creation Law and loosened outsourcing rules during a march to Jakarta’s main sports stadium, Gelora Bung Karno.

In Seoul, the South Korean capital, thousands of protesters sang, waved flags and shouted pro-labor slogans at the start of a rally on Wednesday. Organizers said the rally was meant to step up their criticism of what they call anti-labor policies pursued by the conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol.

“In the past two years under the Yoon Suk Yeol government, the lives of our laborers have plunged into despair,” Yang Kyung-soo, leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which organized the rally, said in a speech. “We can’t overlook the Yoon Suk Yeol government. We’ll bring them down from power for ourselves.”

KCTU union members decried Yoon’s December veto of a bill aimed at limiting companies’ rights to seek compensation for damages caused by labor union strikes. They also accuse Yoon’s government of acting too aggressively during 2022 trucker strikes.

Since taking office in 2022, Yoon has pushed for labor reforms to support economic growth and job creation. His government has vowed to sternly deal with illegal strikes and demand more transparent accounting records from labor unions.

“The remarkable growth of the Republic of Korea was thanks to the sweat and efforts of our workers. I thank our 28.4 million workers,” Yoon said in a May Day message posted on Facebook. “My government and I will protect the precious value of labor.”

Seoul rally participants later marched through downtown streets. Similar May Day rallies were held in more than 10 locations across South Korea on Wednesday. Police said they had mobilized thousands of officers to maintain order, but there were no immediate reports of violence.

In Japan, more than 10,000 people gathered at Yoyogi park in downtown Tokyo for a May Day event, demanding salary increases they said could sufficiently set off price increases. During the rally, Masako Obata, the leader of the left-leaning National Confederation of Trade Unions, said that dwindling wages have made living conditions more severe for many and widened income disparities.

In the Philippine capital, Manila, hundreds of workers and left-wing activists marched and held a rally in the scorching summer heat to demand wage increases and job security amid soaring food and oil prices.

Riot police stopped the protesting workers from getting close to the presidential palace. Waving red flags and holding up posters that read: “We work to live, not to die” and “Lower prices, increase salaries,” the protesters chanted and delivered speeches about the difficulties faced by Filipino laborers.

Drivers also joined the protest and called on the government to end a modernization program they fear would lead to the removal of their dilapidated jeepneys, a main mode of public transport, from Manila’s streets.

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