The road to achieving the rights many workers enjoy today has never been easy. Trade Unions played a vital role in reconstructing, liberating, and fighting for workers’ rights across the world, especially in South Africa. At a time when political parties and other political organisations were banned, Trade Unions showed great courage in fighting for political, community, and working rights through the collective power of labour.
But what happened on Workers’ Day, and why is Workers’ Day celebrated in South Africa? As we approach Workers’ Day South Africa 2023, it’s essential to understand why we celebrate Workers’ Day workers day South Africa to ensure the contribution of Trade Unions in the struggle to liberate workers doesn’t go unnoticed.
Read on to learn more about Workers’ Day history internationally, the Workers’ Day South Africa history and the role of South Africa Worker’s Day in addressing discrimination and inequality in employment.
Workers’ Day History
Workers’ Day history dates back to the 1800s in the United States, where a fierce battle was raging between workers and employers over the number of hours employees were required to work on an ordinary day. As a result, it was common for employers to force their workers to work ten to 16 hours a day under unsafe conditions, and death and injuries were commonplace.
Exhausted by long working hours six days a week, workers organised to call for reduced working hours. In 1884, the predecessor of the American Federation of Labour urged workers to observe an eight-hour work day beginning May 1st 1886. The eight-hour movement united skilled and unskilled workers of all nationalities in demonstrations and protests.
Although the US didn’t adopt the eight-hour workday until the 20th Century, the movement inspired similar protests worldwide, establishing May 1st as the day to recognise workers’ rights worldwide.
South Africa’s Workers Day history
The first May Day celebration in South Africa was in 1895 and is associated with the Johannesburg District Trades Council. At the time, black workers could not join or form trade unions, bargain collectively or strike. Various legislations were enacted to stop such rights, with security acts regulating any gathering in the form of pickets, strikes or protests and non-compliance resulting in incarcerations.
Before 1928 May Day was mainly a white labour affair, but thousands of African workers participated in a mass May Day march that year. From that year, it became an annual event drawing workers from all races. In 1950, a May Day strike resulted in the death of 18 people due to police violence. In 1952, the first-ever Defiance Campaign took place. It was the largest non-violence resistance witnessed in South Africa and was pursued jointly by all racial groups under one leadership to defy apartheid laws.
Is Workers’ Day a public holiday in South Africa?
On the 100th Anniversary of May Day on May 1st 1986, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) called for May Day to be recognised as a public holiday called Workers Day and encouraged a stay-away by workers. A majority of South Africa’s workers observed the call and unilaterally declared the day a public holiday, with 1.5 million workers staying away from work.
They were also joined by thousands of students, pupils, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hawkers, domestic workers, and unemployed and self-employed people. The media also acknowledged that most of South Africa’s workers had declared the day a public holiday, and rallies were held in all major cities despite bans by the state.
Workers’ Day was inaugurated as an official national public holiday after the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
Why is Workers’ Day celebrated in South Africa?
The Workers Day holiday in South Africa serves as a celebration of workers’ rights and hard work and a reminder of the role trade unions, labour organisations and other parties played in the fight against apartheid. Unfortunately, South Africa has a long history of social and labour conflicts.
South Africa’s working class were among the most oppressed by apartheid, closely linking the struggle for better working conditions with the battle to overthrow systematic segregation. Before the 1994 elections, trade and labour groups used Workers’ Day to rally the population, organise demonstrations and encourage widespread resistance against the apartheid system.
South Africa Workers Day holds cultural significance in the country as it signifies the long road and sacrifices made towards achieving fair employment standards and the bitter battles against oppression and apartheid in which labour and trade unions played a key role.
Is International Labour Day the same as 1 May Worker’s Day in South Africa?
Yes. International Labour Day, also called May Day, Labour Day or International Workers Day, has been an international holiday in many countries since the 1890s. It celebrates the courage and commitment of the working class and trade unions who united to fight for their right to improved working conditions and their essential contributions to society.
Over 80 countries worldwide have declared international labour day a public holiday. Individual countries celebrate it differently, but it usually falls around the 1st of May every year. The prominence and prevalence of Labour Day show the universal importance of working people to society and celebrates their role in ensuring our countries and the world remain productive.
International Labour Day highlights the importance of workers in serving the community and the need to work tirelessly toward a world where all workers are treated fairly, acknowledged and provided with favourable working conditions.
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