Virus worries haunt workers demanding rights on May Day

Elena Becatoros, Angela Charlton and Elaine Kurtenbach
Associated Press

Athens, Greece – No job at all, or a job without enough protections – millions of workers worldwide marked international labor day trapped between hunger and fear Friday, as more countries and states reopen for business even though the coronavirus is far from vanquished.

Beijing’s Forbidden City, the imperial palace turned museum that is one the country’s biggest tourist attractions, cracked open its doors, and shopping malls around the U.S. were set to do the same, while world leaders try to salvage their battered economies without unleashing new waves of infections.

Protesters from the communist party-affiliated PAME union wearing masks to protect against coronavirus, march during a May Day rally outside the Greek Parliament, in Athens, on Friday, May 1, 2020.

With traditional May Day labor marches curtailed by strict limits on public gatherings, Turkish protesters attempted to stage a wildcat demonstration. California activists planned strikes, and Parisians sang from balconies to plead their causes: workplace masks, health insurance or more government aid for the jobless.

It was a melancholy International Workers’ Day for garment workers across Southeast Asia such as Wiryono, a father of two in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, who was laid off last month as retailers slashed orders. His side gig delivering coffee dried up, too, amid a virus lockdown. So he set up a clothing repair business to make ends meet.

Hundreds of protesters took part in traditional May Day march, despite authorities' pleas to unions to move their demonstrations to next week, after lockdown measures begin easing.

“I don’t earn as much as I got from the clothing factory. But I have to feed my wife and kids every day,” said Wiryono, who goes by only one name.

In Bangladesh, production is starting back up despite a rising number of new cases of the virus that has killed at least 230,000 people worldwide.

A government-ordered lockdown couldn’t extinguish the May Day protest spirit in Greece, where demonstrators lined up 2 meters (6 feet) apart in careful rows in Athens’ Syntagma Square. Organizers in masks and gloves used tape measures and large colored squares to set out exact positions for the protesters.

Greeks who work by making deliveries staged a motorized protest, driving through Athens on their motorbikes, and police were out in force to ensure residents didn’t head from cities to the countryside, another May Day tradition.

“We are praying for all workers, so that no one will lack work and all will be fairly paid and can enjoy the dignity of work and the beauty of rest,” Pope Francis said at a private morning Mass.

May Day labor protests started in the 19th century in the United States, where this week the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surpassed a staggering 30 million – and joblessness in April could hit numbers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Essential workers were expected to strike around the U.S. on Friday to demand safer conditions, while other groups organized rallies to protest stay-at-home orders they say are crippling the economy. The nation’s death toll was put at more than 60,000.

Lacey Ward, an Omaha hairstylist, said she is worried that the Nebraska governor’s decision to let salons reopen on May 4 could put her and her family at risk. She would prefer to collect unemployment until the danger subsides.

Hairstylist Lacey Ward poses for a photo at the Grey House Salon she co-owns, in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, April 30, 2020. Ward is worried that reopening the salon could force her into a position that puts her, her husband and their two young sons at risk.

“I feel like we are literally the guinea pigs in this situation,” she said.

The biggest mall operator in the U.S., Simon Property Group, planned to open 49 shopping centers across 10 states, with mask-wearing employees and a limited number of shoppers.

May Day is a state holiday in many countries, but lockdowns mean this is the first time that Russia – whose prime minister has the virus – will not hold mass demonstrations on Red Square.

In Turkey, police and protesters wearing masks faced off in Istanbul, and 15 people were detained for defying confinement rules.

In the Czech Republic, people honked horns, played drums or shouted at midday in a special “noisy protest” over the government’s handling of the crisis.

People read signs written for the government during a protest in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Hundreds of people have been protesting in the Czech capital what they say is a chaotic response of the government to the pandemic of the coronavirus.

Some Paris residents defied home confinement rules to hold unauthorized protests. Others staged a midday musical protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the pandemic, singing from balconies and windows.

Instead of holding the usual May Day concert in Italy, musical artists planned to take turns performing solo in empty venues.

A holiday atmosphere enlivened South Africa’s streets, as May Day was also when the country began easing its strict lockdown. People were permitted to walk outside for exercise, and some returned to work.

The country where the coronavirus first erupted also continued opening up again: China’s ancient, majestic Forbidden City reopened on Friday with all tickets for the May 1-5 holiday sold out, and a limit of 5,000 visitors a day, down from the earlier maximum of 80,000.

Visitor Bian Jiang reveled at the chance to visit without huge crowds and said, “When walking in some areas without others around, I felt like I’m getting back to history.”

In Spain, a massive field hospital that had symbolized the country’s desperate battle against the virus was set to close.


Kurtenbach reported from Bangkok and Charlton from Paris. AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.