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May Day - The Real Reason for the Holiday explained

On 1 May 2019 South Africa will again be celebrating Worker’s Day together with about 80 other countries with the exception of the United States. This year also marks South Africa’s 25th celebration of Worker’s Day, following the 1994 elections. South Africa’s mining industry’s history and the development of strong Trade Unions and communist ideologies has largely determined the country’s labour history and the workers’ struggle.

May Day was born from the industrial struggle for an eight-hour work day. The struggle for a shorter workday, a demand of major political significance for the working class goes as far back as the 1800’s. May Day, or Worker’s Day as we know it, refers to various socialist and labour movement celebrations conducted on 1 May.

On 7 October 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, in the United States of America and Canada resolved that eight-hours should constitute a legal day’s labour as of 1 May 1886. The also recommended that to workers organizations under their jurisdiction that they abide by this resolution by the said date. Since then May Day (Worker’s Day) has been celebrated annually on 1 May. 

International working classes have existed since the development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago. The working class was forced to turn over the fruits of their labour to an exploiting class. Today the modern working class’ exploitation is hidden in the wage system. Men, women and children are being forced to work long hours in miserable conditions, just to make a living.

May Day was born in Philadelphia in the United States when carpenters campaigned for a ten-hour working day in 1791. In 1835 workers in Philadelphia organized a general strike which was led by the Irish coal heavers. Their banners read “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” The average work day dropped from 12 hours to 11 hours a day from 1830 to 1860.

In 1836, after succeeding in attaining the ten-hour work day in Philadelphia, the National Laborer declared that eight hours’ daily labour was more than enough for any man to perform. At the 1863 convention of the Machinists’ and Blacksmiths’ Union, the eight-hour day was declared top priority. The heart of the movement was in Chicago and organized mainly by the International Working People’s Association.

Business and the state reacted to the rapidly growing militant movement by increasing its support to the police and the militia. Local businesses in Chicago purchased a $2 000 machine gun for Illinois National Guard to use against strikers. On 3 May 1886 police fired into the crowd of striking workers, killing four and injuring many strikers. This uproar was carried out against the backdrop of the Civil War, which marked the abolition of slavery and the opening of the Southern states to free labour capitalism.

In 1872 a hundred thousand workers in New York City struck and won the eight-hour day, mostly for building trades workers. It was during this campaign for an eight-hour day that May Day was born. The day was linked to the date 1 May at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada.

Five years later in 1880 over 400 delegates met in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the French revolution at the Marxist International Socialist Congress. Here a resolution for calling for an international demonstration to campaign for an eight-hour day. It was resolved to hold the demonstration on 1 May 1890 in keeping with the American Federation of Labour’s 1886 demonstrations of 1 May.

On 1 May 1890 May Day demonstrations took place in the United States as well most countries in Europe and also Chile and Peru. In Havana, Cuba, workers marched demanding an eight-hour working day, equal rights for all and working-class unity. Labour Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil and Ireland in 1891. Chinese workers celebrated their first May Day in 1920, following the Russian socialist revolution. In India workers in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay saw the demonstration for the first time in 1927.

While May Day gained momentum across the world, it lost steam in the United States where the celebration originated. Today May Day is celebrated throughout most countries with the exception of the United States, because of the holiday’s association with Communism.

On 1 May 2019 South Africa will again be celebrating Worker’s Day together with about 80 other countries with the exception of the United States. This year also marks the 25th year celebration of Worker’s Day, following the 1994 elections. South Africa’s mining industry’s history and the development of strong Trade Unions and communist ideologies has largely determined the country’s labour history and the workers’ struggle.

Working hours, wages and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act

In terms of Chapter 2 of the Act, every employer (excluding senior managerial employees, employees engaged as sales staff who travel to the premises of customers and regulate their own hours of work, employees who work less than 24 hours a month for an employer) must regulate the working time of each employee.

An employer may not require or permit an employee to work more than 45 hours in any week and nine hours in any day if the employee works for five days or fewer in a week, or eight hours in any day if the employee works more than five days in a week as stipulated in section 9 of the Act.

An employee’s ordinary hours of work may by agreement be extended by up to 15 minutes in a day but not more than 60 minutes in a week to enable an employee whose duties include serving members of the public to continue performing those duties after the completion of ordinary hours of work. Overtime is regulated in terms of section 10 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. In terms hereof, an employer may not require or permit an employee to work overtime except in accordance with an agreement to work more than three hours’ overtime a day, or ten hours’ overtime a week.

An employer must pay an employee at least one and one-half times the employee’s wage for overtime worked. An agreement may provide for an employer to pay an employee not less than the employee’s ordinary wage for overtime worked and grant the employee at least 30 minutes’ time off on full pay for every hour of full time worked, or grant an employee at least 90 minutes’ paid time off for each hour of overtime worked. This must be granted within one month of the employee becoming entitled to it. An agreement in writing may increase the period to 12 months.

Section 14 provides that an employer must give an employee who works continuously for more than five hours a meal interval of at least one continuous hour. During a meal interval the employee may be required or permitted to perform only duties that cannot be left unattended and cannot be performed by another employee.  An employee must be remunerated for a meal interval in which the employee is required to work or is required to be available for work; and for any portion of a meal interval that is in excess of 75 minutes, unless the employee lives on the premises at which the workplace is situated. The employer may enter into an agreement with the employee to reduce the meal interval to not less than 30 minutes or dispense with a meal interval for an employee who works fewer than six hours on a day.

In terms of section 16, an employer must pay an employee who works on a Sunday at double the employee’s wage for each hour worked, unless the employee ordinarily works on a Sunday, in which case the employer must pay the employee at one and one-half times the employee’s wage for each hour worked. If an employee works less than the employee’s ordinary shift on a Sunday and the payment that the employee is entitled to is less than the employee’s ordinary daily wage, the employer must pay the employee the employee’s ordinary daily wage.

An agreement may permit an employer to grant an employee who works on a Sunday paid time off equivalent to the difference in value between the pay received by the employee for working on the Sunday and the pay that
the employee is entitled to.

Any time worked on a Sunday by an employee who does not ordinarily work on
a Sunday is not taken into account in calculating an employee’s ordinary hours of work but is taken into account in calculating the overtime worked by the employee.

If a shift worked by an employee falls on a Sunday and another day, the whole shift
is deemed to have been worked on the Sunday, unless the greater portion of the shift was worked on the other day, in which case the whole shift is deemed to have been worked on the other day.

An employer must grant paid time off in terms of within one month of the employee becoming entitled to it. Once again, an agreement in writing may increase the period contemplated to 12 months.

Section 17 of the Act deals with “night work.” This refers to work performed after 18:00 and before 06:00 the next day. An employer may only require or permit an employee to perform night work, if so agreed, and if the employee is compensated by the payment of an allowance, which may be a shift allowance, or by a reduction of working hours; and transportation is available between the employee’s place of residence and the workplace at the commencement and conclusion of the employee’s shift.

An employer who requires an employee to perform work on a regular basis after 23:00 and before 06:00 the next day must inform the employee in writing, or orally if the employee is not able to understand a written communication, in a language that the employee understands, of any health and safety hazards associated with the work that the employee is required to perform; and of the employee’s right to undergo a medical examination at the request of the employee, enable the employee to undergo a medical examination, for the account of the employer, concerning those hazards before the employee starts, or within a reasonable period of the employee starting, such work.

An employee works on a regular basis if the employee works for a period of longer than one hour after 23:00 and before 06:00 at least five times per month or 50 times per year.

In terms of section 18 an employer may not require an employee to work on a public holiday except in accordance with an agreement.  If a public holiday falls on a day on which an employee would ordinarily work, an employer must pay an employee who does not work on the public holiday, at least the wage that the employee would ordinarily have received for work on that day.

If an employee who does work on the public holiday must be paid at least double the normal wage; or if it is greater, the normal wage plus the amount earned by the employee for that day. If an employee works on a public holiday on which the employee would not ordinarily work, the employer must pay that employee an amount equal the employee’s ordinary daily wage; plus the amount earned by the employee for the work performed that day, whether calculated by reference to time worked or any other method.

An employer must pay an employee for a public holiday on the employee’s usual pay day. If a shift worked by an employee falls on a public holiday and another day, the  whole shift is deemed to have been worked on the public holiday, but if the greater portion of the shift was worked on the other day, the whole shift is deemed to have been worked on the other day.

We look up to the parties throughout history who have endeavored to better the working conditions of labour throughout the ages. Without them the landscape of the work environment would be very different today. Let us remember and celebrate their efforts on the upcoming 1st of May.

For any Labour issues contact our office for assistance.

References:

Trachtenberg A. (2002), ‘The History of the May Day’, from International Pamphlets, [online], available at https://www.marxists.org

South African History, ‘Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)’, [online], available at www.sahistory.org.za

South African History, ‘Timeline: Nelson Mandela 1950 - 1959’, [online], available at www.sahistory.org.za 

South African History Online, ‘Walter Ulyate Sisulu’, [online], available at www.sahistory.org.za 
Mantzaris, Evangelos A (1995) Labour Struggles in South Africa: The Forgotten Pages 1903-1921. Collective Resources

Roux, E. (1943) Sidney Percival Bunting.  Available at https://www.sacp.org.za/docs/history/spbunting.html.

Roux, E (1948)  Time Longer than Rope. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. Forman, Lionel(1992). A Trumpet from the Rooftops. London: Zed Books

The History of May Day in South Africa available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/history-may-day-south-africa

The Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Act 75 of 1997

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