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

SEOUL, South Korea — Workers, activists and others in Asian capitals and European cities took to the streets on Wednesday to mark May Day with protests over rising prices and government labor polices and calls for greater labor rights.

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.

Police in Istanbul detained dozens of people who tried to reach the central Taksim Square in defiance of a government ban on marking Labor Day at the landmark location.

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.

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.

Riot police apprehended some 30 members of the left-wing People’s Liberation Party who tried to break through the barriers.

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.

About 50,000 workers from Jakarta’s satellite cities of Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi were expected to join May Day 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 the colorful flags of labor groups and chanting slogans against the Job Creation Law and loosened outsourcing rules during a march to Jakarta’s main sports stadium, Gelora Bung Karno.

“With the enactment of this law, our future is uncertain because many problems arise in wages, severance pay and the contract system,” said Isbandi Anggono, a protester.

Indonesia’s parliament last year ratified a government regulation that replaces a controversial law on job creation, but critics said it still benefits businesses. The law was intended to cut bureaucracy as part of President Joko Widodo’s efforts to attract more investment to the country, which is Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

In Seoul, the South Korean capital, thousands of protesters sang, waved flags and shouted pro-labor slogans at the start of their rally on Wednesday. Organizers said their rally was primarily 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 strikes by labor unions. They also accuse Yoon’s government of handling the 2022 strikes by truckers too aggressively and insulting construction sector workers whom authorities believed were involved in alleged irregular activities.

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 that 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 put many workers in Japan under severe living conditions and widened income disparities.

“On this May Day, we unite with our fellow workers around the world standing up for their rights,” she said, shouting “banzai!” or long life, to all workers.

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 rallied in the street, where they chanted and delivered speeches about the difficulties faced by Filipino laborers.

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

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