May 1st: Is it just another public holiday – nothing more than an opportunity to kick back and relax at home? Or is it important that we discover exactly what this day is all about?

The history of Workers Day

Starting in 1891, the first day of May is now commemorated in over 80 countries around the world. Workers’ Day – also known as Labour Day or May Day – began as a struggle for an eight hour work day – in those days it was common to expect people to labour for up to 15 hours a day.

The history and traditions of Workers Day vary from country to country, but throughout the world it is seen as way to celebrate the contribution of workers to the growth of their nations. The day also recognises those who struggled for the rights of workers, like trade union leaders, and people who were jailed and even killed in their fight for the rights of working people.

Why is Workers Day Important?

The demonstrations, strikes and protests that began in the late 1800s and continue on today, have ensured that working people benefit from rights that include the following:

  • An eight-hour work day.
  • Laws preventing child labour .
  • Maternity rights and benefits.
  • Paid time off (for lunch breaks and holidays, for example).
  • Sick leave .
  • Workmen’s compensation.
  • Legal protection .

Workers Day in South Africa

In South Africa the day has a story of its own. It has been officially recognised as a national public holiday since the first democratic elections in 1994, but prior to that May 1 was a day to rally the oppressed people of South Africa to fight for their rights and to end apartheid.

The day is also a reminder of the role played by trade unions and other labour organisations in the struggle for worker and human rights. It is a day to recognise the efforts of workers to improve both the lives of their families and the economy of the country. Today, South Africa has some of the most progressive labour laws in the world.

It has become traditional to hold rallies and marches across South Africa on Workers Day but for the past two years this has not been possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the country. This year it is therefore really important to recognise and thank all the essential workers who kept our society together during the pandemic. This includes, among many others, health workers, SAPS and security service workers, miners, postal workers, and of course, those who job entailed selling food and other goods to the public.

This day, May 1, gives us a chance to thank them for their service to us and to the country.