Workers demand better pay and conditions in global May Day protests

Workers around the world demand more money, reduced hours and better working conditions as May Day protests see some of the biggest turnouts for years

  • Demonstrations have erupted with protesters worldwide pushing for better pay, hours and conditions
  • International Workers’ Day celebrates labourers with organised rallies each year 

Workers and activists from around the world have gathered to rally for higher salaries, reduced working hours and better conditions this May Day.

The first day of May is observed in many countries as a day to celebrate workers’ rights with marches and other organised events.

This year’s marches had bigger turnouts than in previous years as Covid-19 restrictions have been eased.

In France, unions planned massive demonstrations to protests President Emmanuel Macron’s contentious decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The country has erupted with civil unrest since the pension reforms were first unveiled in January.

In the leadup to the Turkish presidential elections later this month, protestors hit hard by a cost-of-living crisis also clashed with riot police in Istanbul.

In South Korea, tens of thousands attended nationwide rallies – the country’s largest since the pandemic. The two main rallies in Seoul were expected to draw about 30,000 each. 

Protesters throw a cardboard police van into a fire as they take part in a demonstration on May Day (Labour Day), to mark the international day of the workers, in Strasbourg, eastern France

Protesters hold a banner reading ‘united for social progress, we will not back down’ as they take part in a demonstration on May Day (Labour Day), in Bayonne, southern France, today

French riot police stand by as protester brandish a placard for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions activist group (BDS) during a demo on May Day in Montpellier, southern France, on May 1, 2023

 A protester (C) holds a placard reading ‘no to arbitrary detentions’ during a demonstration on May Day (Labour Day), in Bayonne, southern France, on 1 May 2023

In France, Macron faced nationwide protests on Labour Day, compounding social unrest brought on by the widely unpopular pension reforms.

The President’s popularity has plunged to near record lows since raising the retirement age by two years to 64, with strikes and huge demonstrations continuing across the country.

Unions hope more than one million people will march through towns and cities on Monday to mark International Worker’s Day.

‘This May 1st will be a milestone,’ said Sophie Binet, leader of the hard-left CGT union. 

‘It will serve to say that we will not move on until this [pension] reform is withdrawn.’

Images showed protestors carrying signs in cities across the country. Others were seen burning a cardboard police car earlier today. Riot police stood guard in Montpellier, a city that has seen major protests over the last few months.

While marchers appeared largely peaceful, police detained 22 people in Paris and dispersed protesters in Lyon with tear gas after troublemakers smashed bank windows and other property. 

French police have come under fire for using drones to film disruptions on Monday in some cities.

Union members marched from Calais to Toulouse in the south, joined by environmental activists and other groups fighting for economic justice, or just expressing anger at Macron.

Turkish riot police clash with protesters as they try to reach Taksim Square for an unauthorised May Day celebration during an International Workers’ Day demonstration in Istanbul, 1 May 

Protesters clash with police during a march in Istanbul, Turkey, on 1 May 2023

Protesters clash with police as they attempt to defy a ban and march on Taksim Square to celebrate May Day in Istanbul on 1 May, 2023

A protester is detained in Istanbul on 1 May amid International Worker’s Day demonstrations

In Turkey, police prevented a group of demonstrators from reaching Istanbul’s main square, Taksim, and detained around a dozen protesters, the independent television station Sozcu reported. 

Journalists trying to film demonstrators being forcibly moved into police vans were also pushed back or detained.

The square has symbolic importance for Turkey’s trade unions after unknown gunmen opened fire on people celebrating May Day at Taksim in 1977, causing a stampede. Dozens were killed.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has declared Taksim off-limits to demonstrations, leading to frequent clashes between police and protesters trying to reach the square. 

Meanwhile, small groups were allowed to enter Taksim to lay wreaths at a monument there.

Ahead of the upcoming presidential elections on 14 May, polling shows opposition parties have made significant gains on Erdogan’s AKP since 2018.

The country has experienced a backslide in democracy, corruption and press freedom in recent years, as well as massive inflation that saw property prices in Istanbul rise 241% in the 12 months to October last year.

PolitPro warns the government may not stay in office based on currently trends, expected to achieve 45.7% of the vote at the time of writing.

Workers from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) attend a May Day rally in Seoul, South Korea on 1 May 2023

Members of Korean Trade Unions hold rallies at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on International Workers’ Day, protesting reforms pursued by the Yoon Suk Yeol government

 Members of Korean Trade Unions pictured today holding rallies at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on International Workers’ Day, opposing government-proposed labour reforms

A crowd in Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun neighbourhood today held anti-government placards, sang songs and listened to speeches by union members. 

Seoul police mobilised thousands of officers to maintain order as thousands marched through the streets.

An activist at a rally in the city shouted from behind a podium: ‘The price of everything has increased except for our wages. 

‘Increase our minimum wages! Reduce our working hours!’

Rally participants in South Korea accused the conservative government of President Yoon Suk Yeol of clamping down on some union members in the name of reforming their alleged irregularities.

Mr Yoon’s government has been calling for labour reform, demanding more transparent accounting records of trade unions and an end to alleged illegal practices by some union members and workers in the construction sector such as pressing firms to hire union members or coercing kickback-type payments from them.

Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida (C) delivers a speech during the annual Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) May Day rally in Tokyo on 29 April 2023

Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) members shouts slogans during the annual May Day rally in Tokyo, Japan, 29 April 2023

People take part to the 94th May Day rally to mark the International Workers’ Day on 1 May, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan

In Japan, Prime Minister Kishida made history as the first active prime minister to have attended the annual May Day rally in Tokyo in nine years on Saturday.

His appearance at the rally was supposed to demonstrate his top priority on raising wages, working closely with labour unions.

Mr Kishida said on Saturday: ‘I am taking part today because I want to build on the momentum toward higher wages. 

‘The most important goal in my “new capitalism” policy is higher wages,’ he told the crowd.

Thousands of trade union members, opposition politicians and academics gathered at Yoyogi park in Tokyo on Monday, demanding wage increases to offset the impact of rising costs as their lives are still recovering from damages of the pandemic.

Union leaders said government measures for salary increases are insufficient and not catching up with rising prices.

They criticised Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s plan to double the defence budget, which requires tax increases in coming years, and said the money should be spent on welfare and social security and improving people’s daily lives.

‘Let’s keep fighting as we workers unite and seek peace and democracy in Japan,’ said Yoshinori Yabuki, head of Tokyo Regional Council of Trade Unions, one of the organisers of the event.

Others chanted ‘Gambaro! (Let’s do our best)’ before they took to the streets for a march.

A Protestor holds a sign during a demonstration on May Day (Labour Day), to mark the international day of the workers, in Pristina, Kosovo on 1 May, 2023

A Protestor holds a flare during a demonstration on May Day (Labour Day), to mark the international day of the workers, in Pristina on 1 May, 2023

Demonstrators take part in a Labour Day rally in Surabaya, Indonesia on 1 May, 2023

Demonstrators wave flares during Labour Day rallies in Surabaya, Indonesia on 1 May 2023

In Indonesia, rally-goers demanded the government repeal a job creation law they argue will benefit business at the expense of workers and the environment.

‘Job creation law must be repealed for the sake of the improvement of working conditions,’ said protester Sri Ajeng at one rally. 

‘It’s only oriented to benefit employers, not workers.’

The Media and Creative Industry Workers Union was pictured out with banners and signs.

‘It doesn’t matter what our profession is, lecturers, NGO workers, journalists, researchers, we are all workers,’ a statement shared on Twitter read. 

Supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party and other Lebanese leftist parties wave their party flags along with Lebanese National flags, during a demonstration organized by the Lebanese Communist Party to mark International Workers’ Day, in Beirut, Lebanon, 1 May

Foreign domestic workers march during a demonstration organized by the National Federation of Worker and Employee Trade Unions in Lebanon, to mark Labour Day, in Beirut, 1 May 2023

Migrant workers carry the flag of Kenya during a rally in Beirut on 1 May to mark labour day

In Lebanon, hundreds of Communist Party and trade syndicate members, as well as a group of migrant domestic workers, marched through the streets of downtown Beirut.

The country is in the middle of a crippling economic crisis and spiralling inflation, with some three quarters of the population now living in poverty.

Migrant workers were seen carrying the flag of Kenya during a rally in the capital to mark labour day.

International Worker’s Day is also observed in Kenya. Each 1 May the government approves – and increases – the minimum wage. 

Police units and protesters clash during a Labor Day rally in Stuttgart, Germany, Monday, May 1, 2023. This year, the events of the German Federation of Trade Unions on Labor Day were held under the motto ‘Unbroken Solidarity’. Slogan reads: ‘Raise Counter Power’

Police units and protesters clash during a Labor Day rally in Stuttgart, Germany, 1 May 2023

Medical personnel hold and shoot slogans reading ‘I want an allowance’ during a May Day rally in Taipei, Taiwan, 1 May 2023. Thousands of protesters from different labor groups protest on the street to ask for increasing labor welfare

A laborer wearing a caricature of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, throws up hands with a sign reading ‘Go talk to the bosses yourself’ during a May Day rally in Taipei, Taiwan, on May Day

Protests in Germany kicked off with a Take Back The Night rally organised by feminist and queer groups on the eve of May Day to protest against violence directed at women and LGBT people.

Several thousand people took part in the march, which was largely peaceful despite occasional clashes between participants and police. 

Numerous further rallies by trade unions and left-wing groups were planned in Germany on Monday. 

In Taiwan, thousands of workers took to the streets to protest at what they call the inadequacies of the self-ruled island’s labour policies, putting pressure on the ruling party ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Gathering in the capital, Taipei, members of labour groups waved flags representing their organisations. 

Some medical workers wearing protective gear held placards with messages calling for subsidies, while other held banners criticising President Tsai Ing-wen’s labour polices.

Across Asia, this year’s May Day events unleashed pent-up frustration after three years of COVID-19 restrictions. 

This year’s events had bigger turnouts than in previous years in Asian cities, as activists in many countries argued governments should do more to improve workers’ lives. 

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