A crowd moves through teargas.

Protesters walk among tear gas during a demonstration on May Day to mark the international day of the workers, more than a month after the French government pushed an unpopular pensions reform act through Parliament, in Lyon, eastern France, on May 1, 2023.

(Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images)

In Largest May Day Turnout Since Pandemic, Workers Around the World March for Better Conditions

Marches from South Korea to Italy called for higher wages and targeted anti-worker policies.

Workers from Japan to France took to the street on Monday for the largest May Day demonstrations since Covid-19 restrictions pushed people inside three years ago.

Marchers expressed frustration with both their nations' policies—such as French President Emmanuel Macron's raising of the retirement age in March—and global issues like the rising cost of living and the climate crisis.

"The price of everything has increased except for our wages. Increase our minimum wages!" one activist speaking in Seoul told the crowd, as TheAssociated Pressreported. "Reduce our working hours!"

"The price of everything has increased except for our wages."

South Korea's protests were the largest in the nation since the pandemic, with organizers predicting 30,000 people each would attend the two biggest rallies planned for the nation's capital alone, Al Jazeerareported.

Activists there criticized right-wing President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has targeted some unions under the guise of reforming what he claims are irregularities. His government had also considered a plan to extend a cap on working hours to 69 a week, before backlash from younger Koreans forced it to reconsider in March, as CNNexplained at the time. Already, scores of people die of overworking every year, so much so that there's a special word for it: "gwarosa." Some marchers called for the president to resign, Dr. Simone Chun tweeted.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, thousands demonstrated against Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's plan to double the defense budget, money they argue should go toward meeting people's basic needs, the APreported.

Demonstrations also took place in the Philippines, where marchers demanded a higher minimum wage; Taiwan, where they wanted improved labor policies; and Indonesia, where they demanded the government repeal a job creation law they said favored business interests over environmental protections or workers' rights.

"Job Creation Law must be repealed," protester Sri Ajeng said, as the APreported. "It's only oriented to benefit employers, not workers."

In Sri Lanka, protesters pushed back on plans to privatize state- or partially government-run businesses amidst the country's worst ever economic crisis. In Pakistan, demonstrations were prohibited in some cities due to security concerns, leading unions to hold indoor rallies in Peshawar, though an outdoor gathering in Lahore still drew large crowds.

Domestic migrant workers in Lebanon played a large role in Beirut's march, while around a dozen demonstrators in Turkey were detained by police while attempting to access Istanbul's Taksim Square, which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had closed to protests.

Marches also took place across Europe, with more than 70 in Spain alone, where unions called for higher wages and supported the push for a four-day work week. In Italy, protests came as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni—the leader of the nation's most right-wing government since World War II—announced a plan to reduce anti-poverty funds and make it easier for businesses to offer short-term contracts to workers, as Al Jazeera reported further.

According to Reuters, Meloni said that "I am proud of the government choosing to celebrate May 1 [International Workers' Day] with facts instead of words."

However, leader of Italy's principal CGIL union Maurizio Landini criticized Meloni's plan and said that wages were too low in the country because of high taxes and an elevated "level of job insecurity."

In the Netherlands, it was the nation's largest union itself that faced protests from its employees, who said they would go on strike Tuesday for higher wages amidst rising inflation, which rose 10% in 2022 and is expected to rise 3% in 2023 and 2024 each. Employees of the union—FNV—want that entire jump to be covered, but the union has only offered raises of 3% to 7% this year, 5% next year, and a maximum of 5% each year after from 2025.

"FNV staff also has the right to an honest wage deal that is appropriate for these times."

"It is painful that we have to go on strike," FNV employee representative Judith Westhoek toldReuters. "But FNV staff also has the right to an honest wage deal that is appropriate for these times."

May Day in Germany began the night before with a "Take Back the Night" march to protest violence against women and LGBTQ+ people, which drew thousands, the APreported.

Finally, in France, marches channeled lingering rage over Macron's decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Unions hoped it would be the nation's largest May Day in years. And this seemed possible, since all of the major unions were working together for just the third time since 1945, The Washington Post noted. The last time this happened—in 2009—crowds reached 1.2 million.

"I think we'll see hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, perhaps 1 million or 1.5 million," Laurent Berger, who leads the nation's largest and more moderate union CFDT, said Sunday, as France 24reported.

Some protesters broke windows in stores and banks in Paris, the AP reported. Meanwhile, police sprayed tear gas in the capital and other French cities, while at least two journalists were caught in the crossfire, according to France 24. Videos shared on social media showed that one journalist's helmet was broken, and another was forced to the ground by tear gas.

A French court allowed police to deploy drones to monitor crowds, which NGOs and lawyers' unions said violated marchers' rights.

Anger wasn't limited to Macron. Climate activists with Extinction Rebellion Paris targeted the Louis Vuitton museum—which they argued was a "tax tool" for the company to reduce what they paid to the state—with spray paint.

They pointed to an Oxfam France report finding that the companies in the nation's CAC 40 stock index would put the world on track for 3.5°C of warming by 2100.

"This is why we ask large companies to take their responsibility and act in the fight against global warming," the group tweeted.

Support for the May Day protests also came from the world's Indigenous peoples.

"The International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation greets the working peoples of the world, especially our fellow Indigenous peoples, in their valiant struggle for just wages, better working conditions, and human rights," the group said in a statement. "The struggle for self-determination and liberation is not possible without linkage between Indigenous Peoples and the working class in tearing down systems of oppression and exploitation."

Update: This piece has been updated with a statement from the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation.

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