May Day: International Workers’ Day

May Day

Henry van Dyke once said, “Heaven is blessed with perfect rest but the blessing of Earth is toil”. There is no doubt that work is very important for people to earn what sustains their life. But what is more important is the well-being of workers because it is the purpose for which they work. Employers must know that their businesses succeed only because of a group of workers who put time and effort to come up with unique products and services.

In the past few decades, an extensive number of studies have been conducted to investigate the factors contributing to increasing employee satisfaction. The issue of employee retention has also become important to business leaders who invest considerable amounts of money on human resource development and other employee-oriented programmes. In fact, the rights of workers now have principal part in constitutions of most, if not all, countries around the world. Today’s employees who enjoy these rights must be thankful to the workers who did not have any rights and used to struggle through long working hours with no attention given by employers to their wellbeing. A number of attempts to change that situation failed until the end of the nineteenth century.

The success of these efforts started to progress in the 1880s as the efforts of strongly established labour unions advocated the rights of workers. The origins of these efforts took place in the United States and then made headway to almost every country in the world. The first of May is celebrated every year by most of these countries to acknowledge the efforts of those who sacrificed to bring change. The terms May Day, Labour Day or International Workers’ Day are commonly used. The significance of choosing 1 May is related to the incident in Chicago, USA in the beginning of May 1886. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly of over 40,000 demonstrators during a general strike for the eight-hour workday, when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators.

Besides the eight-hour workday, workers demanded other rights from employers. Prior to these serious movements, deaths, injuries and other dreadful conditions of the workers were very common at the workplace during the 1860’s and working people were very agitated throughout the workday which was normally between 10-16 hours long. That achievement opened the door wide for more rights to be gained in later years such as rest breaks and entitlement for paid leaves. In fact, employers are increasingly inventing ways to take care of their employees in compliance with labour laws – if not genuinely to help them then it is at least recruit the best of them. Recently, global as well as local ranking systems presented lists of the best companies to work for based on the benefits and flexible environments their employees enjoy.

The struggle for gaining employees’ rights of better work conditions and shorter workday hours have continued for many decades before it succeeded in the end of the 19th century.

Labour Day is a national holiday in all countries that celebrate it, even though the date of celebration varies between them. In the United States, unlike most countries which celebrate on 1 May, the celebration takes place on the first Monday of September every year. Canada celebrates on the same day which is customarily viewed as the end of the summer vacation season. Other countries chose different dates to celebrate the Labour Day. In Australia, the western part of the country celebrates it on the first Monday of March while the Northern part celebrates on the first Monday of May. In The Bahamas, the celebration is on the first Friday of June to commemorate an epoch-making strike by workers that began on 7 June 1942. Labour Day celebrations take place on the fourth Monday of October in New Zealand, 23 May in Jamaica and 24 April in Bangladesh. The significance of choosing a Friday or Monday is to give the workers longer weekends.

Although the majority of countries celebrate Labour Day on 1 May every year in conjunction with the International Workers’ Day, some countries chose to celebrate it on different dates that have special significance for the labour movement in that country.

International Labour Day is celebrated yearly as an official occasion by arranging big events with many programmes. People exchange news and messages through TV channels, radio stations, social media platforms and post letters and e-cards to congratulate each other. “Happy Labour Day” is a common greeting on this day. Earlier, celebrations of Labour Day consisted of demonstrations, speeches, protests processions, rallies and parades organised by the unions and working people. However, these activities faded with time and people now prefer to rest during Labour Day than demonstrating in the streets. Exceptions to this remain in some countries where working conditions are still bad and the workers are not satisfied.

To many people, Labour Day means a day off from work which gives people a chance to get away for a long weekend. However, Labour Day is one of those holidays that many reap the benefits from but do not actually know the true significance of it. With all the rights to relax and socialise, today’s workers should at least remember and acknowledge the efforts of those who struggled and sacrificed over the past centuries. The young generation should know the history of Labour Day so that they will always be aware of advocating their rights while fulfilling their duties. Actually, there will never be a time when all workers’ demands are fully satisfied, but both employees and employers have to understand the needs of the other side and try to fulfill them as a responsibility towards them.

Labour Day is not just a day off work. Workers assisted by labour unions should highlight the sacrifice made by their ancestors and teach this history to the young generation. This makes future workers aware of their rights over employers.

In addition to those who are already working, the Labour Day comes to remind governments and business leaders of the increasing rates of unemployment rates. The gender gap in job opportunities and wages and the issue of minimum wages for workers should be highlighted during on this day. But it has been noticed that merely observing the Labour Day did not do much in terms of gaining these rights in the past few decades. Perhaps the advancement in forming and operating labour unions made the workers more confident that there is someone who is advocating their rights. Yet, a few union representatives will not be able to achieve the required success alone. Workers’ involvement in the unions’ activities is very important for them to succeed.

The vital force of labour added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realisation of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labour Day to the creators of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership.