May Day: quest for an 8-hour shift

May Day: quest for an 8-hour shift

For those who were situated around Bangalore East surrounding the ITC Factory located there in the past, the loud siren blown to announce the closing of one shift – and the start of the other – was part of the daily bustle of the area. The residents neighbouring the factory were habituated to this alarm several times in a day. While it was part and parcel of the activity of the locality back then, for the hundreds of workers employed with the factory it meant something more than just an alarm.

It echoed the organised system of an eight-hour shift for the workers. It represented a structured work programme that gave them protection from continuous and extended hours of work. The siren contained in its reverberation a message to the contemporary workforce that the eight-hour work they enjoyed was not a coincidence in the history of the working class. Rather, it was the fruit of an upheaval from the labour force of the previous era that campaigned for an eight-hour workday to counter prolonged and incessant work resulting from rapid industrialisation and mechanisation.

In a much broader sense, the sound of every siren in every factory across the world is a bell that strikes a chord with the emancipation of harsh toil at the workplace of the bygone times.

History has it that workers were made to work up to 16 hours a day, six days a week with meagre payment and often in severe and unsafe working conditions. However, slowly and steadily, dissent rose from the working class towards these atrocities and gained momentum over time. In the late 19th century, the labour movement reached its peak and the clamour for a fair eight-hour workday that originated in the United States of America, received support from all quarters of the world.

In 1886, the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, that was the site of a major union demonstration in support of the eight-hour workday, would become the historic event where the demand for an eight-hour workday was acknowledged. Labour got its recognition as an important component of the production cycle.

Finally, with due credit, the International Socialist Conference declared that in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, May 1 would be International Workers’ Day to honour and celebrate labour. Today, International Workers’ Day, is commonly referred to as May Day and is celebrated in every continent. The day recognises and applauds human toil in every aspect of life.

A top agenda

Work is at the heart of the progress of individuals and of societies. It gives meaning and purpose to life. The worth of every individual is felt at a deeper level by his work and through it his contribution to society. Individual efforts are interlinked to the collective work of all and a nation is built from common labour. It is with the daily toil of labour that plantations harvest, industries run, offices function and laboratories do research.

The crusade against the injustice to the vulnerable labour force should continue as justice to the defenceless labour class is yet to reach all sections of workers in the international scenario in general and in developing countries in particular. Asia, Africa and Latin America together, termed as developing nations, are particularly lagging behind in delivering the promises of fairness that was part of the agenda in celebrating May Day. Long working hours, low wages, hazardous environment, poor infrastructure, lack of safety gadgets, poorly maintained machineries that increase the incidence of accidents, insufficient in-house training and inadequate access to legal recourse in the event of breach of contract by the employer are just some of the evils that plague the working class of these nations.

Dependence on the unorganised sector for employment opportunities by a vast majority of the workforce in developing countries has also weakened the workers’ in protecting and asserting their rights. Often the unorganised sector “is characterised by a high incidence of casual labour, mostly doing intermittent jobs at extremely low wages. There is a total lack of job security and social security benefits. The areas of exploitation are high, resulting in long hours, unsatisfactory work conditions and occupational health hazards. ”

All these evils go against the basic human rights of justice and fairness. And as they are deep-seated in the functioning of all growing economies, they have to be addressed with urgency and must become the top agenda of the governing bodies. If not, honouring labour once a year becomes a mere ritual, one that does no justice to the good fight that the activists of the past have initiated.

May Day, that is observed to honour labour, also reminds us of the importance of all forms of labour. Work of any kind is to be recognised and protected. Be it menial or skilled, work is a privilege and a progressive pursuit of the human race.

Work at its deepest level paves the way in making this world a better, happier and safer place for all. As Henry Van Dyke said, “Heaven is blessed with perfect rest but the blessing of earth is toil.”

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