THE Chinese Government and Communist Party celebrated Labour Day yesterday in their usual turgid, ritualistic style with uninspiring ''cultural activities'' and eulogies to the working class. But the working class, the so-called ''masters of the country'', had little to cheer about. With prices of consumer goods continuing to spiral and millions of labourers in state-run enterprises having their pay suspended because of huge financial losses, the masters of the country are in no mood to celebrate. Workers are also having to put up with poor and often dangerous working conditions, long hours and increasingly exploitative management. The official trade unions, where they exist, provide little recourse for dissatisfied workers, being primarily concerned with ''educating'' the workforce to accept whatever management decrees. But first and foremost, it is inflation, running at about 25 per cent in the cities, which is causing the biggest headache for the proletariat. Although the average income for urban residents has been rising faster than inflation, increasing by 35.5 per cent (unadjusted) in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, many low-income households are being left behind. Retired workers, brought up to believe the state would take care of them from the cradle to the grave, have been particularly hard-hit, with their savings being whittled away and their meagre pensions hardly sufficient to cover daily expenses. More and more, retired workers are having to rely on their children for financial support and many feel the Government has simply forgotten about them. ''Nobody cares about us old people anymore,'' a 70-year-old former machine operator said. ''We just have to fend for ourselves and with prices going up all the time it is becoming very difficult just to get by.'' The Government, it must be said, recognises the problem, but in public statements it has attempted to play down the difficulties. ''Because of high price rises in the cities, particularly increases in food prices, a few low-income households have been unable to make ends meet and are experiencing difficulties in their lives,'' Ye Zhen, spokesman of the State Statistical Bureau, said recently. Talk to any factory worker in Beijing, however, and you will soon discover that it is more than just a few households which are ''experiencing difficulties in their lives''. Worker discontent is at its highest level in five years and industry has been plagued by a rash of strikes, go-slows, walkouts, and even physical attacks on managers, as workers take increasingly militant action to protest against their fate. In response to the crisis, the Government has resorted to that old Maoist standby, the model worker, to restore some sense of pride in the working class. To commemorate May Day, the Government held a mass meeting in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to celebrate this year's great proletarian endeavours. It decided to increase the number of ''model'' and ''progressive'' workers to be honoured next year. However, the idea of working long hours in poor conditions for next to no pay in order to be presented with a certificate of commendation and a red ribbon will not do much to appease the masses. Perhaps recognising this, the Government is taking more practical measures, such as cracking down on the fledgling independent labour union movement to prevent the workforce organising any effective opposition. Dozens of labour activists have been detained over the past three months and many of the most prominent, such as Zhou Guoqiang and Yuan Hongbing, face lengthy prison terms. All in all, the ''masters of the country'' have a lot to be annoyed at this holiday.