The public holidays just keep on coming this month! From Freedom Day, we have quickly made our way to Labour Day tomorrow, Tuesday, 1st May — and who couldn’t love all these tributes to the human spirit and the notable events that have changed the course of history?
Somewhat ironically, to celebrate this International Worker’s Day, we will have yet another day off work. In many countries, Worker’s Day, otherwise known as May Day, is an important public holiday — but for labour rights campaigners, it holds a particularly strong significance as it is a commemoration of past struggles against a range of workers' rights violations, such as unsafe conditions, child labour and excessive working hours.
It is also a reflection on what can further be done to improve working conditions around the world, so that we can create productive and healthy societies that are based on fairness and equality.
Let’s take it back to the start...
This international day finds its origins in the United States of America in the late-19th century, when leftist activists and trade unionists came together to protest unjust working conditions. The chosen date is particularly poignant in its close association with the Haymarket Riot, also known as the Haymarket Massacre or Haymarket Affair. This was a violent confrontation that took place on 4th May 1886 in Chicago between police and an estimated 40,000 protesters.
On 3rd May, police officers attacked workers, who were striking as part of a national campaign for an eight-hour workday (instead of the 16 hours a day that they were often forced to work). At least two were killed and several injured. To protest the police brutality, labour leaders called a peaceful mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square, but when the police intervened and demanded that the crowds disperse, an unidentified person threw a bomb and the police responded with gunfire. Seven officers and at least four civilians were killed in the violence, and over 60 people were injured. Eight people were then arrested and convicted of murder on the grounds of conspiracy, despite many of this so-called ‘Chicago Eight’ not even being present at the event and their involvement never being proved. They were given sentences ranging from hanging to life imprisonment, and those who died have since been regarded by many socialists as the Haymarket Martyrs.
Widespread hysteria resulted after the riots and, in 1889, an international organisation for workers and socialists declared that 1st May would be International Workers' Day. However, the eight-hour work day wasn't actually passed as law in the United States until 1916, after years of strikes and protests.
The Haymarket Riot galvanised the broader labour movement and, after massive global anti-war sentiment in the years that followed — particularly as many people considered World War I to be an example of capitalist countries setting members of an international working class against each other — it fuelled workers to further unite and wage a revolutionary war against the upper echelons of their own societies.
Since that period of history, International Workers' Day has been commemorated with celebrations, protests and strikes around the world; and several notable May Day marches have been held to call on governing forces to improve rights and reduce violations.
The South African context
While South Africa does have structures in place to protect employees and settle matters of injustice, such as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to workers’ rights. Massive strikes in recent years, such as the five-month wage strike in the platinum sector in 2014, highlight that unfair conditions and general discontent in the workforce are still rife. To name but a few issues — the bill that grants fathers the right to paternity leave still hasn't been passed, basic annual leave is far below that of European nations, and minimum wage (at just ZAR3,500 per month) is considerably low when taking into account the general cost of living and inflation.
According to an article originally published at the end of last year in The Conversation, “trade union membership has been declining and now only about a quarter of the workforce is unionised.” There are also potential changes on the horizon that could affect workers across the country. As well as a new National Minimum Wage Bill, amendments to the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act are currently being considered by parliament, and, if passed, these will be the biggest changes to South Africa’s labour laws since 1995.
Although two of the proposed amendments aim to prevent lengthy and violent strikes in the future, they would potentially introduce measures that could undermine the collective nature of a strike in general, and give employers an easy way of avoiding strikes without necessarily having to agree to any of their workers’ demands. If these amendments are passed, it would be a significant defeat for workers, as it could take away the most powerful tool available to people to improve their earnings and working conditions.
It has also been proposed to change the monthly minimum wage in favour of an hourly minimum wage of ZAR20 per hour (this will be even less for domestic or farm workers). This could have a particularly detrimental effect on those who cannot work at least 40 hours a week. Considering that non-compliance with minimum wage laws is already sadly high in South Africa, this amendment does nothing to help reduce exploitation, which should be key; and it could further restrict basic rights and choices.
In a country where there is still a long way to go to achieve justice for all, it is vital that we protect the hard-won gains of the labour movement in South Africa, so that we can focus on lessening the country’s vast economic disparities. Although minimum wage amendments may not be of direct financial concern to you, they could have serious knock-on effects for the country as a whole — an increase in economic hardship will arguably cause an increase in negative social consequences, such as crime, gangsterism, and general health and education issues. If economic deprivation isn’t tackled effectively, a deficit will also need to be covered, which could result in further tax hikes.
It is also important to make sure that your own working situation is to par, and that you are maximising your financial situation. The key is to make your money work for you as much as possible, and to take advantage of any benefits and savings to which you are entitled. Know your rights and make the most of them.
The Haymarket tragedy motivated generations of activists, labour leaders and artists across the world into action. Let us remember the global struggle for workers’ rights this Labour Day, and let’s make it a labour of love to work towards a better future together in South Africa — on both a personal and collective level. Don’t hesitate to arrange a meeting to discuss how to achieve your goals so that you can help others to achieve theirs too.