Around the world, angry workers unite on May Day

By Suzan Fraser

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 1 2013 10:41 a.m. MDT

A protester prepares to throw a stone as clashes erupt between police and protesters during May Day celebrations in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday May 1, 2013. Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators trying to break through barricades to access Istanbul's Taksim Square which the government, citing security reasons, banned a rally on the square which is undergoing major renovations.

The Associated Press

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ISTANBUL — Workers around the world united in anger during May Day rallies Wednesday — from fury in Europe over years of austerity measures that have cut wages, reduced benefits and eliminated many jobs altogether, to rage in Asia over relentlessly low pay, the rising cost of living and hideous working conditions that have left hundreds dead in recent months alone.

In protests, parades, strikes and other demonstrations held in cities across the planet, activists lashed out at political and business leaders they allege have ignored workers' voices or enriched themselves at the expense of laborers during what has been a difficult few years for the global economy. In some places, the demonstrations turned violent, with activists clashing with police.

The pain was especially fresh in Bangladesh, where the collapse last week of an illegally built eight-story facility housing multiple garment factories killed more than 400 in a Dhaka suburb. The building collapse followed a garment factory fire in November that killed 112 people in the country, and it has increased the pressure on the global garment industry to improve working conditions.

A loud procession of thousands of workers wound through central Dhaka on Wednesday. Many waved the national flag and demanded the death penalty for the now-detained owner of the doomed building. From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, a participant spoke for the throngs gathered: "My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."

The Bangladesh tragedy drew a denunciation from Pope Francis as he addressed worshippers at a private Mass at the Vatican. He blasted what he called the "slave" wages of those who died, many of whom were being buried Wednesday as other bodies were still being pulled from the rubble. Francis criticized the focus on "balance books" and personal profit that he said are tied to the failure to pay workers fair wages.

In Greece and Spain, increasing numbers of people are losing their jobs as governments grappling with a debt crisis have been forced to cut spending, raise taxes and pursue other painful austerity measures in return for various international bailout packages. Both countries have unemployment rates hovering just above 27 percent.

Unions in Greece held a May Day strike that brought ferry and train services to a halt, and organized peaceful protest marches through central Athens. The country, which nearly went bankrupt in 2010, is now in its sixth year of a deep recession. While the austerity drive has succeeded in reducing high budget deficits, it has been at a huge cost: under the terms of its latest loan disbursement, Athens has agreed to sack about 15,000 civil servants through 2014.

"We are here to send a message to ... those in power in Europe, that we will continue our struggle against unfair, open-ended policies that are destroying millions of jobs on a national and European level," said Kostas Tsikrikas, leader of Greek public sector labor union ADEDY.

More than 100,000 Spaniards infuriated by austerity measures and economic recession took to the streets of some 80 cities in trade union-organized rallies Wednesday, with the largest protests in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao.

Under banners reading "Fight for your rights," union leaders Ignacio Fernandez Toxo of Workers Commissions and Candido Mendez of the General Workers Union called on the government to reverse its austerity drive and urged politicians to agree an all-party economic plan aimed at creating jobs.

Francisco Moreno, an unemployed bookkeeper, scoffed at Spanish leaders' calls on the public to be patient. "You can only be patient if you have savings, money in the bank," the 47-year-old said. "You can't be patient if you have no income and kids to feed."

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