Big May Day events in Asia call for better labor conditions

By AP News

Workers and activists across Asia are marking May Day with protests calling for higher salaries and better working conditions

Japan May Day Labor

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A large number of workers and activists in Asian countries are set to mark May Day on Monday with protests calling for higher salaries and better working conditions, among other demands.

May Day, which falls on May 1, is observed in many countries as a day to celebrate workers’ rights with rallies, marches and other events.

In South Korea, more than 100,000 people planned to attend various rallies across the country in its biggest May Day gatherings since the pandemic began in early 2020, according to organizers. Similar events to mark the international labor day were expected in other Asian countries since COVID-19 restrictions were drastically loosened worldwide.

The two main rallies in Seoul, the South Korean capital, were expected to draw about 30,000 people each to listen to speeches by leading union members, sing songs and watch performances before marching through the streets, according to the organizers: the Korean Confederation of Trade Union and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.

Seoul police had planned to mobilize thousands of officers to maintain order and said they will sternly deal with any illegal activities such as assaulting police officers and occupying streets at undeclared locations.

Rally participants will call for an increase in minimum wages, repeat their demands not to ease corporate punishment for industrial accidents, and protest what they call the government’s anti-labor policies. Their trade unions accuse the government of clamping down on some labor unions in the name of reforming their alleged irregularities.

The conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol has been pushing for a set of labor reform steps. It's called for more transparent accounting records of labor unions and an end of what it calls illegal acts like unions pressing firms to hire union members and some workers coercing kickback-like payments from companies.

Han Sang-jin, a spokesperson at the Korean Confederation of Trade Union, said his union members plan to stage a large-scale strike in July if their demands over labor issues aren’t met by then.

In North Korea, the country’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a lengthy editorial urging workers to lend greater support to leader Kim Jong Un, fulfill their set production quotas and improve public livelihoods.

“We should become genuine socialist workers who uphold the ideas and leadership of the respected general secretary with pure conscience and fidelity,” the paper said, calling Kim by his title at the ruling Workers’ Party.

Kim has been pushing for greater public support of his family’s rule as he’s calling for a stronger, self-reliant economy to overcome pandemic-related hardships and protracted security tensions with the United States over his nuclear program. Outside experts say North Korea hasn’t shown any signs of a humanitarian crisis.

Workers in Indonesia marked the international labor day Monday with rallies in major cities across Southeast Asia’s largest economy. About 50,000 workers were expected to take part in traditional May Day marches in the capital, Jakarta, according to the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions, which represents 32 labor unions.

Thousands still angry at the new Job Creation Law gathered near the National Monument waving colorful flags of labor groups and banners with demands. They later marched to the Constitutional Court and near the heavily guarded Presidential Palace to demand the repeal of the legislation. More than 6,000 police personnel, backed by soldiers, were deployed to secure the capital and authorities blocked streets leading to the compound.

The Job Creation Law amended more than 70 previous laws and was intended to improve bureaucratic efficiency as part of efforts by President Joko Widodo’s administration to attract more investment to the country. But critics remain unhappy, saying it will still benefit business at the expense of workers and the environment.

“Job Creation Law must be repealed for the sake of working situation improvement,” said protester Sri Ajeng. “It’s only oriented to benefit employers, not workers.”

Similar rallies were also held in Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and other cities around the country. They called on the government to pay more attention to Indonesian migrant workers overseas and make every effort to stop human trafficking and job outsourcing.

In Japan, May Day celebrations in Tokyo and elsewhere were held over the weekend without any pandemic-related restrictions for the first time in four years. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attended a Saturday event at a Tokyo park, which drew thousands of workers, politicians and representatives from major unions.

“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,” Kishida told the crowd.

The new capitalism program pushed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party centers around the private sector and the government working together to get the Japanese economy growing. Unionized workers have been pushing to win wage increases amid inflationary pressures.

At Tokyo’s Yoyogi park, thousands of labor union members, opposition lawmakers and academics gathered Monday for the May Day event, demanding enough wage increases to offset the impact of rising costs while their lives are still recovering from the damages of the pandemic. Monday’s May Day rally was held separately and organized by liberal-leaning groups.

Union leaders said government measures for salary increases are insufficient to catch up with rising prices, and workers’ real wages have continued to decline. They criticized Kishida’s plan to double defense budget, which requires tax increases in coming years, and said the money should be spent on welfare and social security and improve the people’s daily lives.

“We oppose major military expansion and tax increase, and demand a large-scale wage increase that exceeds price increase,” said Yoshinori Yabuki, head of Tokyo Regional Council of Trade Unions, one of organizers. “Let’s keep fighting as we workers unite and seek peace and democracy in Japan.”

Participants chanted “Gambaro!” meaning, “Let's do our best!” before they took to the street for a march.


Associated Press writers Yuri Kageyama and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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