The Northland Age

Labour Day truly worth celebratin­g

- Robin Shepherd

We have just been privileged to once again have Labour Day as a national holiday. I doubt that more than 5 per cent of the population know why it is so labelled and how it comes to be a national holiday occurring each year on the fourth Monday in October.

New Zealand was a world leader in establishi­ng the 8-hour working day and later the 40-hour week. Previously there were no rules governing working labour conditions so it was common for many employees to be required to work more than eight hours a day and often working six days a week and with often just two or three special days off in a year.

There were no guaranteed holidays. Long hours, unsafe work places, child labour and poor pay were all very common for employees.

The first New Zealand worker to challenge the long working hours was Samuel Parnell, a carpenter in Wellington. In 1840 he negotiated a 40-hour week.

He was a pioneer and while others negotiated similar employment conditions it was 40 or more years before there were more general acceptance of laws controllin­g working hours which, at first, applied mostly to tradesmen, factory workers, those in shipping and transport and government employees.

Many other employees were still having to work long hours. People in the hospitalit­y industry and farming were notable examples, as they still often are.

In 1899, Labour Day was declared a national holiday to mark the considerab­le improvemen­t in (labour) working conditions. Trade Unions had been the main influencer­s resulting in new labour laws. In the first 20 or so years of the holiday, it was marked with parades and other social and political gatherings. It was a day to celebrate.

Fast forward and 120 years on, we still mark the holiday but seldom think about its origins. Today, we may take for granted employment arrangemen­ts. In most industries and occupation­s 8-hour days and 40-hour weeks are honoured, while on the other hand we have some employment agreements where employees are working 7-hour days and on just four days a week.

Those arrangemen­ts contrast with a small minority of employers who effectivel­y are engaged in modernday slavery with often workers on sponsored arrangemen­ts or who are overseas companies bringing in their own work-force who are trapped and have to work long hours with very dodgy agreements. There are other industries where employees are paid in relation to their productivi­ty, such as fruit pickers.

Despite all of that, Labour Day is a fixed part of the New Zealand calendar, even though its origins have often been forgotten.

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