Demonstraters in Athens marked May Day while wearing protective masks and respecting social distancing (AFP Photo/Aris MESSINIS)

Workers of the world scaled back their traditional May Day demos Friday with coronavirus lockdowns forcing many to rally online instead, while a determined few hit the streets in face masks.

There were arrests in the Philippines and Turkey as dozens broke mandatory home confinement to hold public pickets, but most gatherings on this unusual Labour Day went without incident.

The traditional festival of the workers’ movement usually attracts millions of people to loud and boisterous marches, and occasional violent confrontations with police.

But with strict social distancing rules in most countries to halt the spread of the virus, many union leaders opted to delay public gatherings or move events online.

May Day carries extra significance this year after the COVID-19 outbreak sent the global economy into a historic tailspin, put unprecedented numbers of people out of work, and cast some of the world’s lower paid workers — nurses, garbage collectors, shop tellers and delivery drivers — in the role of modern-day heroes.

“It is thanks to the labour we celebrate on this day that the nation perseveres” said President Emmanuel Macron of France, where workers will celebrate the popular holiday by banging pots and singing on their balconies and taking part in online demonstrations.

“It is thanks to the work, the dedication, of our caregivers, civil protection personnel, the armed forces… that we save so many lives every day,” Macron said in a message to the nation, also thanking farmers, civil servants, and other workers who have made it possible for “life to continue in spite of everything.”

– Bella Ciao –

In Turkey, some two dozen protesters including a senior union leader were arrested for taking part in a small march by mask-wearing workers in Istanbul in violation of lockdown measures, an AFP photographer witnessed.

Hundreds of Greek workers also took part in a rally outside parliament under the banner of the Communist-affiliated PAME union, with a small band playing “Bella Ciao”.

Red stickers on the ground ensured that picketers remained at a safe distance from each other, many wearing red scarves over their faces or masks bearing messages of solidarity with health workers.

“Covered mouths still have a voice,” read some.

No arrests were made, despite the government saying the rally infringed on lockdown rules.

In the Philippines, police detained at least three people as small groups of protesters banged on empty pots and held up placards demanding government aid and safe working conditions in defiance of a ban on public gatherings.

Some 23 million people — nearly a quarter of the country’s population — faced hunger due to “no work, no pay” provisions in their employment contracts, but faced arrest for violating quarantine, Jerome Adonis of the May First Movement labour movement told AFP.

Indonesia’s labour unions have called off street rallies, but organised an online protest against a pro-business bill aimed at simplifying layoffs.

– ‘We’ve had to get creative’ –

The Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions has also organised donation drives to buy facemasks for factory workers and food for workers fired in the downturn sparked by the coronavirus.

In Finland, labour rallies are traditionally preceded by huge communal picnics in the largest public gathering of the year.

But only a handful of revellers congregated Friday around the Manta statue on Helsinki’s market square, the traditional epicentre of the festival now boarded up and patrolled by police enforcing a ban on groupings of more than ten people.

Authorities have encouraged Finns to celebrate online this year, with restaurants offering live streams of wine tastings or cocktail lessons, and serving up traditional May Day food for home delivery.

“We’ve had to get creative and try and find new ways that we can still interact and create togetherness,” Helsinki restaurateur Filippo Phoumsavanh told AFP.

In Hong Kong, riot police were deployed with rubber bullets and tear gas after democracy activists threatened to defy a ban on gatherings to hold mass pro-democracy protests, but the streets remained largely empty.


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