By ANDREW MWANGURA
For the first time in 130 years Labour Day this Friday (May 1, 2020) will not be celebrated in the streets around the world because of the ongoing COVID 19 crisis.
May Day is an annual event to celebrate the achievements of workers that originated from the labour movement fighting for an eight-hour working period, eight-hour recreation and eight-hour rest.
Historically, Peter McGuire – a carpenter and labour union leader – was the person who came up with the idea for Labour Day meant to celebrate the worker annually.
This proposal was floated in 1882 to New York’s Central Labor Union and they thought the holiday was a good idea.
25 MILLION JOB LOSSES
However, such celebrations went on unnoticed by the government for a decade until the American Railway Union strike against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company in the early 1890s.
The first Labor Day was hardly a national holiday.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s estimates up to 25 million jobs could be stake worldwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Kenya, COTU wants the government to prioritize the workers as it tackles the economic impact from the spread of the coronavirus.
The government’s offer of tax reliefs is a welcome but it must go beyond supporting public or private sectors and also give more support to workers through income support, distribution of rations and loan reliefs.
Locally, celebrations of Labour Day are synonym to minimum wage increments that are announced by either the President or Labour Cabinet Secretary in attendance at Uhuru Park where influential leaders of COTU and Federation of Kenya Employers give their speeches to commemorate the day.
But over the years Labour Day has lost its significance with many workers giving it a wide berth and only waits to hear from their union leaders whether they have bugged any increases of minimum wages!
Although each worker’s health and safety is addressed, most of the employers do not offer the same within their jurisdictions, thus, going against the outlined labour rights as enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution and the ILO Conventions and Instruments.
Meanwhile, COVID 19 is not the first pandemic to hit the East African region because it brings back memories of the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ that claimed 250,000 people and resulted into the worst famine.
The flu landed in East Africa around September (1918) through ships originating from Bombay in India at the Kilindini Harbour before moving inland by the Kenya-Uganda railway.
By October the disease had spread throughout Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika with the death rate from the influenza in Tanganyika exceeding 100,000, Kenya about 150,000 and Uganda registering lower mortality of the total population then.
The authorities in Zanzibar managed to contain the disease by setting up quarantines in the Island and in the coastal towns along the 10 miles coastal strip.
Tukuyu in the South West of Tanganyika which had a population of around 180,000 lost about 10 per cent of its population (about 18,000) to the Spanish flu.
Asian continent was the worst hit by the virus with an estimated 32 million deaths from the Spanish flu.