Virus worries haunt workers demanding rights on May Day

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — No job at all, or a job without enough protections — millions of workers worldwide marked international labor day trapped between hunger and fear today, 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.

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.

“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 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. today 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.

“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.

By Patricia Older

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