Coronavirus: May Day protesters demand more job protections amid pandemic

Arrests in France, Britain and Italy after demonstrators clash with police

A police officer looks on during clashes as people gather at the Bois de la Cambre/Ter Kamerenbos park for a party called "La Boum 2" in defiance of Belgium's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) social distancing measures and restrictions, in Brussels, Belgium May 1, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Workers and union leaders took to the streets for May Day marches on Saturday, demanding more labour protections amid a pandemic that has turned economies and workplaces upside down.

In countries that mark May 1 as International Labour Day, the annual celebration of workers’ rights produced a rare sight during the pandemic: large and closely packed crowds, with marchers striding shoulder-to-shoulder with clenched fists behind banners.

In Turkey and the Philippines, police prevented the May Day protests, enforcing virus lockdowns and making hundreds of arrests. In France, some marchers battled with riot police.

For labour leaders, the day was a test of their ability to mobilise workers in the face of the profound economic disruptions.

In France, thousands took to the streets with union banners and flags, hemmed in by and sometimes scuffling with riot police. The face masks worn by many marchers were a reminder of how much life has changed since the last traditional May Day celebrations – in 2019, before the spreading coronavirus wrecked lives and livelihoods and eroded civil liberties, often including the right to demonstrate.

Riot police clashed with some demonstrators in Paris and the southern city of Lyon, while burning roadblocks threw clouds of smoke into the Paris air. Police charged crowds to catch suspected troublemakers and fired small amounts of tear gas.

Police in Paris said they made 34 arrests. Authorities also reported five arrests and 27 police officers injured in Lyon. But most of the dozens of marches across France passed off without incident.

Some demonstrations, constricted by coronavirus restrictions, were markedly less well-attended than those before the pandemic.

Police arrested nine people who took part in protests in London on Saturday demanding that the government reverse planned legislation that would increase police powers.

More than 1,000 people marched through central London and chanted "kill the bill" outside government buildings, as well as dancing to music played from a bus.

Police said nine people had been arrested and officers were "continuing to engage" with protesters who gathered in a park in south London after the march.

Police officers wearing protective face coverings to combat the spread of the coronavirus, arrive to disperse the crowd of demonstrators protesting against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 after they block the trams in central Manchester on May 1, 2021. Previous "Kill the Bill" demonstrations have turned violent, with protesters demanding the withdrawal of the legislation, which critics say harshly restricts the right to peaceful protest. / AFP / Oli SCARFF

Russia reported only a fraction of its usual May Day activities amid a coronavirus ban on gatherings. The Russian Communist Party drew only a few hundred people to lay wreaths in Moscow. For a second straight year in Italy, May Day passed without the usual large marches and rock concerts.

But in France, Germany and other places where rallies were allowed, workers vented their concerns over jobs and protections.

In Bosnia, coal miner Turni Kadric said he and his colleagues were “barely surviving".

In Indonesia, South-East Asia’s largest economy, thousands voiced anger at a new jobs law that critics fear will reduce severance pay, lessen restrictions for foreign workers and increase outsourcing as the nation seeks to attract more investment.

Protesters in the capital of Jakarta laid mock graves on the street to symbolise hopelessness and marches were being held in some 200 cities.

In the Philippine capital of Manila, where a month-long coronavirus lockdown has been extended by two weeks amid a surge in infections, police prevented hundreds of workers from demonstrating at a public plaza, protest leader Renato Reyes said.

But protesters did gather briefly at a busy Manila boulevard, demanding pandemic cash aid, wage subsidies and Covid-19 vaccines amid rising unemployment and hunger.

“Workers were largely left to fend for themselves while being locked down,” labour leader Josua Mata said.

In Turkey, a few labour leaders were allowed to lay wreaths in Istanbul’s Taksim Square but riot police stopped many others from reaching the plaza. The Istanbul governor’s office said 212 people were taken into custody for breaching coronavirus restrictions.

People in Turkey are barred from leaving home, except to collect essential food and medicine, under a lockdown until May 17 that aims to halt a surge in infections.

In Germany, where previous May Day demonstrations have often turned violent, police sent thousands of officers into the streets and gave a warning that rallies would be halted if marchers failed to follow coronavirus restrictions. Protests in Berlin called for lower rents, higher wages and voiced other concerns. Also marching were far-right coronavirus deniers and opponents of anti-virus measures, police said.

In Italy, police faced off against a few hundred demonstrators in the northern city of Turin. In Rome, Italy’s head of state paid tribute to workers and healthcare workers.

“Particularly heavy has been the impact from the crisis on female labor and on the access of young people to jobs,’’ Italian President Sergio Mattarella said.

Across the Atlantic in Brazil, thousands of demonstrators backing President Jair Bolsonaro's anti-lockdown stance rallied at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro – one of several such gatherings across the country.

There were also protests in Brasilia and other cities to criticise how the pandemic has been handled. Brazil has reported more than 400,000 Covid-19 deaths, a toll second only to the US.