May Day 2021 - Statement by President Michael D. Higgins
1 May 2021
It is a tradition that goes beyond borders that on this day, May Day, International Workers’ Day, celebrated by workers, their families and all those around the world who struggle for rights, that we be invited to reflect on what solidarity calls on us to do as we face the challenges that remain in securing and promoting workers’ rights, at home and abroad; all this as part of our commitment to the deepening and sustenance of democracy in all aspects of lives, everywhere.
May Day through the generations has always been one of the great moral days, a day of invitation to envisage collective welfare, and joy too. For workers all over the world, it provides an opportunity of celebrating the progress made – acknowledging the tireless efforts, in different circumstances, of workers and trade union activists – on making our workplaces spaces that reflect the dignity of work, and safer places of collective experience.
May Day has always been a special day, then, to review the current challenges and, most importantly, the next steps to be taken. This year, in particular, we are invited to look beyond borders, as we, alive on the planet, share the experience of a pandemic.
We are marking May Day - International Workers’ Day, in 2021, for the second time in the circumstances of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic is a crisis that has tested our authenticity when we speak of mutual solidarity. It has laid bare many of the dire consequences of both existing economic inequalities and widespread inadequacies in social protection that are a great scar on our humanity. For example, as we speak the threat of famine affects 34 million of our fellow global citizens, and poverty at a global level is increasing, in even the most developed societies.
We have had global crises before and come through. We must not sacrifice hope or commitment in our efforts to emerging from Covid-19. Surely, however, we must not just survive. We must change. That change must be a deep change if we are not to keep simply failing better than before.
The question that arises now is as to whether, when we mark May Day next year, in a post-Covid setting, will our society be any different? Will we still be faced with profound inequality, the absence of Universal Basic Services at global level? Or will we have used the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the fundamental questions it has posed about our lives? Will we have recovered the authenticity which is necessary when we speak of our core values? Will we have changed in such a way as represents a commitment to reshape our lives together?
Among the lessons to be learned from the present crisis has been the importance of community, of care, and of solidarity. The instinct for such values in any society is a precious resource. It is an instinct that has survived in so many places in the world even when challenged by the most aggressive suggestions of extreme individualism and the insatiable colonisation of market forces that seek to control so much of life.
Here at home, in communities throughout Ireland, we have seen many examples of how people have come to one another’s assistance. Nationally, too, we have seen how the State was able to mobilise its resources effectively as it sought to ensure that all members of society were protected. The State’s role, it was so clearly demonstrated, was necessary, nationally and internationally.
However, in a most important respect our solidarity at global level has been tested, and we have been found wanting.
Solidarity, in an inter-dependent world, must mean – when it comes to global challenges such as pandemics, climate change, sustainability – standing shoulder to shoulder with those in other countries, especially poorer nations with fewer financial resources, so that, for example, vaccines are made available, accessible and affordable for all.
The means of responding to pandemics must be regarded as resources that constitute global public goods. Not to do so is surely to bring into question what we mean, or intend, when we speak of a global pandemic needing a global response.
Our actions must match our words or we lose credibility.
Solidarity among nations is key if we are to optimise the world’s management and eventual exit from this pandemic. It represents the best of the multilateralism on which our hopes for global responses to shared challenges, such as climate change and sustainability, depend. We cannot afford to squander the best advice we have been given on the need for collective action – to turn to ashes in their mouths what were offered to us as the views of our multilateral institutions.
Traditional markets have acknowledged that they cannot deliver at the scale needed to cover the entire globe. Solidarity within and between countries and the co-operation of the private sector in what are entirely new circumstances is essential if we are to overcome the challenges presented to us by Covid-19 and in particular with regard to accessing appropriate medical treatments.
Yes, it is good that we have been caring for each other in the pandemic. Is it not time, however, to respect caring as one of the most important forms of work?
Our definition of work must change, must evolve and widen, to incorporate the important role of caring and carers as essential workers; workers far too long undervalued by society, as their efforts were not valued as marketable skills. Then, too, re-definition of work will incorporate changes in technology; technology that must be seen as instrument for sustainable activity rather than as an unaccountable determinant of lives and societies.
So when, next year, we come to think of which parts of the economy have responded with efficiency and energy to conditions presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, we must think of the example we have experienced of all those engaged in essential work of all kinds – those key and frontline workers who showed, by the degree of our dependence and appreciation of them, how necessary they are to achieve a basic level of existence across society, and maintain it during a time of unprecedented crisis.
When the Covid-19 pandemic is over and the spotlight has been removed, as happens, let us ensure that we as a society have done everything we can to give their work the recognition it deserves.
We have the opportunity, in responding to Covid-19, to do everything in a new way, in a fairer, socially cohesive, ecologically responsible, and fulfilling way. Next year, let us be able to say that we did everything we could to mitigate, indeed eliminate where possible, the deepening divisions in society and in people’s welfare, everything possible to foster a more equal and inclusive society, demonstrate that we have chosen a new path for a new emancipatory journey together, one where, for example, nothing will ever be presented as too complicated for citizens to understand or implement.
The extent to which workers, of all kinds of work, wherever the setting, with all their diverse abilities, will be enabled to contribute fully to their society in years to come will surely be a litmus test of how well we have learned the painful lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, of how we are to give meaning in 2021 to that great rallying call of all ages and peoples of those all over the world – the call for ‘Solidarity’.
Today, on International Workers’ Day, we honour workers’ efforts, and celebrate the fruits of their activism, especially during a period in which they have been asked to deal with the personal, social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when many hard-won workers’ rights were already under pressure.
On this May Day 2021, let us muster the courage to address with energy and enthusiasm all of these changes. Let us today too never forget the efforts of those worker activists, women and men, who led the demand for democracy at home, in the workplace and in society, and secure the rights we enjoy today.
Let us, across all our borders, commit to building a post-pandemic society based on solidarity, care, compassion, kindness and, above all, equality. Let us build a country in which all work is valued, all jobs offer security, and all workers are allowed the dignity of living flourishing and fulfilled lives, of lives lived in freedom personally, and in the experience and enjoyment of their collective rights, rights expressed through their active and participatory union membership, all of which are crucial for the benefit of an inclusive, cohesive society.
Beir bua agus beir beannacht.