/ 1 May 2008

Workers rally on May Day over food prices, rights

Police battled demonstrators in Istanbul as tens of thousands of workers rallied on World Labour Day on Thursday while soaring food prices brought large crowds on to the streets of some Asian capitals.

In Istanbul, police used pepper gas and water cannon to disperse workers outside Turkey’s main left-wing labour confederation at the start of a tense day of events in the country.

Volatile crowds also rallied in the Philippines’ capital of Manila and Indonesia’s Jakarta, carrying signs demanding ”Jobs, Justice, Food” and ”Lower Food Prices Now”.

The struggle to afford basic food staples such as rice was the focus of many of the demonstrations in Asia, where rallies were patrolled by huge numbers of police.

Jakarta police chief Adang Firman told reporters after monitoring the capital from a helicopter that 10 000 security personnel had been deployed and another 50 000 were on standby.

Elite police commandos armed with assault rifles were positioned on highways leading to Manila, while ”crowd dispersal units” were placed on full alert near key government buildings.

”The economic crisis is sharper and more intense this year,” said Renato Reyes, secretary general of left-leaning activist group Bayan. ”Workers in the Philippines have every right to be angry and frustrated.”

Turkey faced a fractious May Day with the country’s three main labour confederations and the government at loggerheads over the event’s venue.

Officials banned access to central Taksim Square, which has symbolic importance for the Turkish labour movement and where at least 34 demonstrators were killed on May 1 1977.

Several workers were injured in early morning clashes, before water cannon forced demonstrators into a building where they crowded windows, chanting: ”We are the people, we are right, we will win.”

Rallies focusing on rising living costs were also held in Singapore and Bangkok, where protesters waved signs saying, ”Expensive rice prices, cheap labour wages. How can labourers live?”

The soaring price of rice has led to a supply crunch that is worrying governments wary of worker unrest.

One billion people in Asia are now seriously affected by the food price surge, the director general of the Asian Development Bank, Rajat Nag, said on Wednesday.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi marked May Day by urging workers to be more innovative to ensure the country remains competitive, while in India sex workers marched in Kolkata to call for better working conditions and rights similar to people in the entertainment industry.

In communist China, business came to a standstill as China celebrated the national holiday. Huge traffic jams blocked some roads out of the city and the expressway to the Great Wall, one of the country’s most famous tourist spots, had tailbacks at least 20km long.

About 44 000 people attended a rally in Tokyo where Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii railed against the government for reinstating a controversial petrol tax. — AFP