Workers’ Day: not just another public holiday

Who doesn’t love a public holiday? Especially two in very close proximity, causing many people to do what the French call “making the bridge” (taking one working day – Monday – as leave to create a five-day weekend). As a nation we love our public holidays. But it’s easy to forget that we enjoy these days off because they commemorate crucial events in our history. We at Highveld think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the meaning of our public holidays and to celebrate the efforts of those who changed our society for the better.

While many of our public holidays are unique to South Africa – think of last Friday, Freedom Day, or June 16th, Youth Day – 1st May is not a celebration we can lay proprietorial claim to. More properly called “International Workers’ Day”, this day is observed in many countries around the world.

The eight-hour day

What time do you generally finish work? Everyone has days when they put in extra hours, or take work home, but most employed workers work roughly an eight-hour day (the self-employed and entrepreneurs are a different breed; we’re talking about conventional employees). Depending on your organisation’s structure, you may work 08.00-16.30 or similar, because your half-hour lunch break is technically unpaid time (although in Europe, while the same practice exists, the paid work week is actually 35 hours, so even with a lunch break workers only clock up 40 hours on site). But unless you are a shift worker (or a junior doctor!), eight hours is widely recognised as the standard working day. And, correspondingly, we are socialised to think of this a reasonable amount of time to spend at work. More than that either earns overtime, is associated with a very high salary, or provides the motivation to start looking for a new job.

But this was not always the case. The eight-hour day emerged as late as 1872, and then only in the USA and mostly in the building trades. Before that, campaigners lobbied hard for a reduction in the working day to 10 or 12 hours – six days a week. Only Sunday was a day of rest. Life was hard for workers, who incidentally were often children. In the mid-19th century, French workers, spurred on by victory in the February revolution of 1848, lobbied for and won the right to a 12-hour day. If a 12-hour day was a triumph, imagine what workers’ lives must have been like. By the late 19th century, there was a global demand for an eight-hour day.

The modern Workers’ Day, and the date on which we celebrate it, can be traced to 1st May, 1886, when roughly half a million American workers demonstrated across the country in support of an eight-hour day. On 4 May that year, in Chicago, police fired on crowds and at least 11 people died (reports of the incident vary widely; there may have been an incendiary device released in the crowd). Regardless, protestors’ demands were met and the eight-hour day came into being. In 1890, demonstrations were staged on the anniversary of what came to be known as the Chicago Haymarket Massacre, 1st May, in the United States and most of Europe, as well as in Chile, Peru and Cuba. It became an annual event, with more and more countries taking part each year. By the 1920s, 1st May was celebrated as Workers’ Day throughout most of the world. Ironically, in the US the notion of a workers’ day was associated with the dreaded Communism, so the observation lapsed. The Americans celebrate “Memorial Day” on 30 May, to commemorate the fallen in various wars, but “Labour Day” takes place in September, far removed on the calendar from the perceived socialist International Workers’ Day.

South Africa, then…

In South Africa, following the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, 1st May was inaugurated as an official national public holiday and has a special significance for us. It serves both as a celebration of workers’ rights and as a reminder of the critical role that trade unions, the Communist Party and other labour organisations played in the fight against apartheid. Non-white South Africans made up the bulk of the working classes and therefore were among those most oppressed by apartheid. Consequently, the struggle for better working conditions and the struggle to defeat institutional racism became intertwined.

Early in the 20th century, South African workers undertook a number of strikes, which were increasingly stamped out by the state, until in 1973 trade unionism began to take hold. A series of strikes in Durban resulted in the rise of the modern workers’ movement. Not long after that – in 1982 – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed. COSATU, or the Congress of Trade Unions, followed in 1985, strongly supported by the NUM. COSATU allied with the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the shared struggle against apartheid. Labour and trade groups often used Workers’ Day as a symbol around which to rally the population against the oppression of apartheid, organising demonstrations and encouraging widespread resistance.

And now…?

Our Constitution and supporting legislation protects workers’ rights and ensures fair labour practices. Worker-friendly legislation includes the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Mines Health and Safety Act and the Employment Equity Act. We have some of the most progressive laws in the world, of which we can be proud.

However, despite our Constitution, many workers in low-paid jobs and in the service industry continue to be exploited. We have a system of law that awards workers fair treatment and equitable pay, but the employment culture in South Africa does not always live up to the ideals laid out in our Constitution, especially for women. Equal pay for work of equal value is still an ideal not fully implemented. As a very basic example, the wages of an unskilled (male) gardener are often considerably higher than those of an unskilled (female) domestic worker. Casual workers, male and female, often fall outside the legislative and regulatory safety net and are therefore unprotected by employment law.

The introduction of a national minimum wage for all South Africans, officially launched on 1st May, is an important step towards fair remuneration. President Cyril Ramaphosa said of the minimum wage, “We have made important progress in improving the conditions of the working poor.” However, the rate of R20 per hour is seen by the South African Federation of Trade Unions as a “slave wage”, sparking a national strike last week. COSATU, on the other hand, views the minimum wage as a starting point, given that six million South Africans currently earn less than R20 per hour. (COSATU did not participate in the strike.)

Until all workers enjoy dignified treatment and fair and equal remuneration, Workers’ Day will remain an important tribute to the ordinary worker and a vital reminder that our society cannot thrive without the full engagement of all levels of workers, from management to cleaning staff.

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