Origins of Labour Day

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe | Published: 2:39 AM May 1 2021
Echo Origins of Labour Day

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe 

Before the colonial rulers fared the sea and arrived in the East in search of riches the orient possessed, Asian countries were more or less self-sufficient and had their economies based on subsistence agriculture. It was the Europeans who saw the economical value of various crops grown in Asia and tried to make the most of it by introducing commercial cultivation and in doing so in Sri Lanka, it is the British who succeeded the most with their introduction of coffee, tea, and rubber to the country. 

Drastic changes were made  to the geography of hill country, infrastructure, economy, and a heap of changes were brought to the social structure as well. As the hills were cleared to make way for coffee and subsequently tea, transportation, logistics and processing mills sprouted out in Colombo, creating many job opportunities. 

However, it created a few distinct social classes, depending on the work one did. On the top was the British cultivator or the factory owner followed by clerks who did the bookkeeping. The higher ups of the bookkeepers were again foreigners but there was a considerable amount of locals there as well. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the labourers who worked at the factories, shops, the railway, and the harbour. Almost all of them were locals, although there was a significant amount of estate workers who had come from India. However, that sect of the labour force was practically cut off from the Colombo workers and had no real interaction with the commercial capital. 

Exploited labour 

The difference in the work created clear social classes with the British being the elite. The working conditions of clerks weren’t that bad in comparison but it was the labourers who drew the shortest straw in terms of the level of treatment they received.

The labourers who worked in factories and shops in Colombo had a miserable time since the British owners had monopoly and the last say in any matter. Miniscule wages, hard labour and no facilities provided was almost the norm back then. The labourers were made to wake up early in the morning to report to work by 

6 a.m. Apart from the small break they received for lunch, there wasn’t any other interval and they had to continue working until well after 5 p.m. Get 10 minutes late to arrive and quarter of the day’s wages were cut, get an hour late and half a day’s salary was gone. Back then, not reporting to work wasn’t even an option. There were no entitled leaves and many were quite frequently shown the door if the factory’s targets weren’t met. 

For Rs 10-20 a month, these workers sacrificed their blood, sweat, tears, fingers, limbs, and sometimes even life to the daily struggle of working with machinery. Apart from the basic salary, there weren’t any other bonuses or allowances. The workers had no other option but to try and meet their needs such as rent, food, water, clothes and every other need with the mere salary they were getting. This left little to no room for any savings and when they ‘retire’ due to old age, they had no pension plan or any money to take care of themselves. The living conditions of local clerks were considerably better but the labourers had to lead hellish lives to make ends meet. 

Oppression led to unions 

Around the same time in late 1800s and early 1900s, workers in the west were leading revolutions against the elite, the capitalists demanding reduced working hours, reasonable pay with benefits and better working conditions. In London, the revolution was picking up some serious phase but Sri Lankan workers had no way of knowing how the workers in the west were fighting for their rights.

What came as the source of information for the working class was the newspaper Sarasavi Sandaresa. It reported on how the working class was rebelling against the capitalist elite in England and planted the idea that there is no other way than going to a revolution in order to win the due rights of working people. 

The paper educated labourers who otherwise would have no connection or information to the world beyond their borders since their whole day was spent in factories. Enlightened, the workers started to think for themselves and this ultimately led to the forming of unions. 

Fuelled by the ideas they read in Sarasavi Sandaresa and the Theosophical Society, a group of teachers from Minuwangoda held basic discussions of forming a union in March 1891. As a result of these talks, the ‘Teachers Union’ was formed on 18 April 1891 and they held their first general meeting on 22 January 1892. However, there isn’t much documentation about the union afterwards but many consider this Teachers Union to be the first trade union formed in the country during British Rule. 

Strikes against the oppression

Although the first known trade union was formed in early 1890s, it was not as if workers did not get together to make a stand for their rights before that. There are multiple recorded instances of workers striking against the oppression before the first trade union of the country came into being. 

In 1860, teachers of few private schools were said to have gone on strike and later in 1870, some irrigation labourers from the Eastern Province also went on a strike. In 1879, the butchers in Colombo held a strike while in 1881 some machine operators in a private factory also did the same.

All these strikes were not well-planned and did not occur on a whim. They were easily dealt with and/or the two parties involved came to an understanding rather quickly. These revolutionary acts failed to impact the factory owners in a way that it was really felt.   

The first well-organised strike in Colombo happened on 12 September 1893 in a printing company called H.W. Cavey. About 56 workers of the British-owned company went on strike, protesting late payments. It is logical how workers at a press, led the country’s first significant organised strike as workers in mainstream media back then (the press), were the first to learn of what was going on in the world. They knew about Haymarket Affair and the formation of International Labour Day in the United States, and were influenced by the progress the working class was making in the west. 

Soon, workers of other similar press institutions such as Flora Hall, Colombo also joined in and started to strike demanding timely wages. However, all the English papers and quite a few Sinhala papers back then took the owners’ side and condemned the act of workers. Only Sarasavi Sandaresa spoke on behalf of the press workers. 

Father of the Labour Movement 

Although the press workers’ strikes were well-organised, the owners dealt with them rather easily. The bias of the press and the legal knowhow helped them to wave off most of the accusations and in some cases, the owners managed to fire and imprison a few strikers. 

After the press workers’ strike, a few other strikes of railway workers, dhobies, and cart owners also took place but they were minor in comparison and weren’t strong enough to leave an impression. The working class already had a taste of striking to win their rights and were educated enough to know whether they were getting exploited or not but they lacked a strong leader to guide them. 

This vacancy was filled by A.E. Gunasinha when he officially joined the struggle of the working class in 1914 with the foundation of Young Lanka League. The well-educated Gunasinha was a clerk at the Railway Department but later said goodbye to that job to pursue a journalistic career. His Young Lanka League actively took part in many strikes and protests, and also engaged in lots of welfare programmes for the working people.

Realising the ‘struggle’ needed more than a mere welfare programme like a strong force that would unite all workers as a one, Gunasinha established the Ceylon Labour Union on 10 September 1922. This was a huge turning point for the leftist movement and the working class’ fight against capitalism. 

First May Day in Sri Lanka 

Gunasinha, although lost some popularity towards the early 1930s due to a series of failed strikes, he was instrumental in giving a voice to the working class of Sri Lanka under the British Rule. Dubbed ‘Father of the Labour Movement’, Gunasinha not only was a pioneering member of the leftist movement but is also credited as the one who started May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka. 

The first May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka were held in 1927. Led by Gunasinha, the first May Day celebrations not only gathered a considerable number of labourers to one place but also united them to strive towards achieving a common cause. “The first May Day celebrations were organised in Sri Lanka in 1927 when the country was under British rule. Back then, the foreign company owners, industrialists, and the Government held a strict policy towards the demands of the working class. Also, there wasn’t a unity among the working class nor did they have a common goal. Therefore, I started the May Day campaign in order to bring the working class together to strengthen their fight against unjust employers,” wrote Gunasinha later on. 

The aim of Gunasinha’s first May Day was to not just unite workers but to show the Government and the factory owners that the working class is a serious force to be reckoned with. The first May Day celebrations were peaceful and had given much prominence to cultural items and games. The voluntary force of Ceylon Labour Union had organised the whole event. Wearing red shirts and red caps, these members of the voluntary force handled the whole parade. The first May Day rally was not anti-Government but rather supportive of the rulers. Apart from the symbolic red flags the participants held, they also held signboards with encouraging slogans such as ‘Support Rulers’, ‘Save Nation’, ‘Protect Mother Lanka’, and ‘Be More Courageous’. 

‘33 May Day

Although Gunasinha initiated May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka in 1927, many political experts believe that the first May Day was celebrated in Sri Lanka in 1933. Even the Dinamina newspaper on 3 May 1933 reported that the first May Day celebrations of the country were held on 1 May 1933. Perhaps this is because  the 1933 held event was the first better-organised and much-publicised May Day celebrations the country had. 

The ‘33 May Day saw participation of workers and athletes from all over the country. The parade commenced from Galle Face Green at 4:30 p.m. and slowly reached Victoria Park (now Viharamahadevi Park) by 

8 p.m. Addressing the gathering, Gunasinha had said that his intention was not to follow the voices of the western working class but rather to unite Sri Lankan workers while heavily criticising the ways of Marxists. 

No unity among the working class           

Gunasinha’s intention was to unite workers together and make their collective voice a formidable force but this vision got somewhat overlooked after 1948 with the unionisation of Government workers. By 1956, there were 352 registered trade unions and out of them 226 were unions of Government workers. 

Up until 1956, a union needed more than 40 per cent of the workforce joining in for it to be officially recognised as a union but in 1956 easing this rule, a new rule was introduced which stated that even as few as seven employees can form a trade union. This led to the formation of multiple trade unions in a single institute, often divided by different political views.

It was the leftist movement that introduced trade unions and the celebration of Labour Day or May Day but today, almost every single political party in the country has trade unions of their own and hold their own May Day rallies. The politicising of the trade unions have done more harm than good, the greatest of them all being the movement losing its collective voice.         

(Information courtesy History of May Day by Dharman Wickramarathne)

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe | Published: 2:39 AM May 1 2021

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