The Origins of Labour Day

May 1, 2016

Just as I was leaving the home of a friend’s after dinner, he says “I’ve always believed that Labour Day should be celebrated with labour”.

I laughed, brushed it off, and didn’t think much of his comment as I was at his doorstep saying my goodnights for the evening.

When I finally got home, it hit me that I knew very little about the origins of Labour Day, and my curiosity always gets the better of me, even at 4am in the morning. (Deciding to have a homemade cappuccino after dinner was not the smartest decision I made tonight.)

In a ‘watered-down’ nutshell, here’s what I’ve learnt…

In today’s context, Labour Day is a public holiday to celebrate the achievements of a country’s workers. For many countries, including Singapore, Labour Day coincides with the International Workers’ Day, which occurs on May 1.  For other countries like Australia, Bangladesh, Bahamas, Canada, Jamaica, NZ, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United States, Labour Day is celebrated on a date that bears significance for the labour movement in their country.

Despite not celebrating Labour Day on May 1, International Workers’ Day originated in the US after the working class succeeded in their fight for 8-hour work days. Prior to that, workers were made to toil under poor conditions for 10-16 hours/day. Proponents of the ‘eight-hour day movement’ advocated 8 hours for work, 8 hours for recreation, 8 hours for rest. (Darn… why not 6 hours for work, 6 hours for family, 6 hours for friends, 6 hours for rest?) During that time, socialism was a new and attractive ideology to working people for they witnessed how capitalism led to them trading their lives for their bosses’ profits. Eventually, thousand of socialists and anarchists stood up, challenged the bureaucratic political process, and fought for the labour laws and regulations most of us take for granted today. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”

Bringing things back closer to home, the celebration of Labour Day as a public holiday in Singapore started in 1960, after the People’s Action Party (PAP) came into power, with the intention of setting aside a day in honour of workers and their contributions to Singapore. Having a designated day made it easier for workers to come together for celebrations.

With that in mind, my friend’s comment of how “Labour Day should be celebrated with labour” doesn’t seem too far-fetched going by its American origins. To truly commemorate this day for what it is, we should really be working 8-hours every May 1 to celebrate that we actually get to work 8-hour days.

But oh, what am I saying… Happy Labour Day! :)

Be Happy.

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