Thu. Dec 12th, 2019

Workers’ Day 2019: A brief history

Workers day 2019Labour Day, or International Workers Day, is an International public holiday in many countries, most often celebrated on 1 May.

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The day is used to honour the contribution of working-class men and women across the globe. It is a public holiday in South Africa, which originated with the historical struggles of workers and trade unions.

What sets our local Workers’ Day apart from the International celebrations, is that we needed to establish a culture of human and worker rights. It was initially known as May Day.

Workers’ Day has been officially recognised and observed since the first democratic elections in 1994.

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Image via Twitter: @_COSATU

The origins of May Day

According to SA History, the struggle for a shorter workday dates back to October 1884, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions US resolved that a working day should constitute of only eight hours.

In 1895, May Day was celebrated for the first time and the movement started gaining traction. In 1916, a small group honour the employees killed during a strike two years prior. The movement gained momentum in 1928.

In 1950, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) called for a strike on that date to protest against the suppression of Communism Act. The strike led to police violence that caused the death of 18 people across Soweto.

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Social media caption: “Currently, more than 374 million people are injured or made ill every year through work-related accidents. Let’s anticipate risks for increased safety at work.” / Image via Twitter: @ILO

The South African labour federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), formed in December 1985. Cosatu demanded that May Day be recognised as a public holiday and renamed to Workers Day.

The call for a stay-away was heeded by approximately 1.5 million workers, students, business owners, and unemployment citizens.

Rallies were held across the country, with the majority centred around the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging area, today known as Gauteng.

Premier Foods became the first large employer to declare 1 May and 16 June as paid holidays and many other large companies followed suit.

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May is the month when Vaal Reefs disaster kills 105 miners when train crashes into elevator at No. 2 shaft, at Vaal Reefs mine in 1995. Image via Twitter: @_COSATU

Workers’ Day 2019 – Post-1994

To achieve racial reconciliation, South Africa needed policies to specifically address unemployment, inequality, and various other socio-economic factors. These policies evolve as the country evolves.

In 2018, The government announced that it would be working towards amending the Labour Relations Act to deal with the increase in labour brokering and the abuses associated with the practice.

Many of these practices deprived workers of basic protection under the labour law. To remedy the situation, the government proposed the following amendments:

  • Registered unions and employer organisations may establish bargaining councils, as statutory bodies established by the LRA, 1995, within a specific economic sector. They represent the centrepiece of the bargaining system.
  • The replacement of the Conciliation Board by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) signals a shift from a highly adversarial model of relations to one based on promoting greater cooperation, industrial peace and social justice.
  • South Africa has established specialist labour courts. These courts exist side by side with traditional courts. The labour courts generally exercise exclusive jurisdiction over specialist labour matters. The Labour Court of South Africa has exclusive jurisdiction over all matters reserved for it under the LRA, 1995.

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