Today is a holiday. Not only because it’s Saturday and school is off, but also because it’s a public holiday on account of May Day or Labour Day — a day when we are supposed to acknowledge the hard work of all sorts of workers, be they skilled or non-skilled, and recognise their rights.
Whether your mum or dad work in an office or a factory, their work hours are set as is their pay and benefits, according to their qualification and experience and the workload they are supposed to handle. It is supposed to be the same in the case of those with little or no education or skills, often working for minimum wages and no set timings. But, unfortunately, it is not always the case, and May Day is more about them than the well-paid, highly educated workforce.
First, let’s get to know why we observe Labour Day or May Day. Labour Day has its origin in the Labour Union movement in the United States. In the late nineteenth century when industrialisation was at its peak, industrialists used to exploit the workers and make them work for 15-16 hours a day; they often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary conditions and breaks for rest. Despite long work hours, they were poorly paid.
A time came when workers could not take this exploitation any longer and began to demand paid leave, proper wages and breaks from work. They demanded that the working hours be reduced to only eight hours a day so they have time for rest and recreation — eight hours to work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.
To press for their demands, labour unions began organising strikes and rallies to protest against the dismal and dangerous working conditions and to compel employers to revise work hours and pay. Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket incident.
On May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago, USA, went on strike which continued for a few days. On May 4, the police acted to disperse the protesting workers near Chicago’s Haymarket Square, when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing at the workers, as a result of which several people lost their lives.
Labour Day commemorates the struggles against the violations of workers’ rights, including lengthy workdays, poor conditions and low wages. May 1 was chosen as International Workers Day, also known as Labour Day or May Day, to commemorate the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886.
Today, International workers’ Day or Labour Day or May Day, whatever name you give it, is celebrated in almost all countries, though now in some countries it is not celebrated on May 1, but on a different date. For instance, the USA and Canada celebrate it on the first Monday of September. However, in Pakistan, it is celebrated on May 1, when seminars, rallies and parades are organised where labour leaders emphasise the history and importance of Labour Day. This also portrays solidarity with workers around the world.
Sadly, workers in our country still do not enjoy as many rights as workers in more developed and industrialised countries. The working conditions are poor and the wages are low, and they often have to work more than their capacity. Besides this, there are no safety and health facilities.
While it is beyond your capacity to do anything to change the working conditions of the labourers in factories and other institutions, it is important that you are aware of the hard work they put in to make our lives easy. For instance, the people working at the electricity companies; they work all hours to keep the electric supply on at our homes. If there is a power failure, we make such a fuss and talk of their inefficiency, but it is these people who work in hot and cold weather, and even in rain, to restore our electricity. Yet, many of the lowest level workers are so poorly paid that they can’t even afford a fridge at their homes to ensure that their children have cold water at all times. We have so many examples, the traffic constable trying to manage traffic under the burning sun in summer, the waiters at restaurants serving us delicious food which their children can hardly ever eat.
Closer at home, there are the maids and drivers who work to keep our homes clean and to drive us anywhere we want to go; we just take them for granted and never think about them, their problems and their families. The driver would come early in the morning so that you can reach school on time, and may not be able to send his children to school. Has anyone ever asked them whether their children go to school and, if they do, how they reach there or who drops/picks them?
Your parents must indeed be paying them well and taking care of them, but they need more than that. They need respect and empathy; they need us to understand their problems and treat them well. True that they work for us but we should treat them well, not be rude to them just because they are our servants. If, and in most instances they are, older than you, talk to them as befits talking to an elder, calling them uncle or bhai rather than just shout their names. Make sure that they get time to eat and rest and are not kept on their toes round the clock.
We have to be more careful and considerate if there are children working at our place. Though morally and ethically it is not right to make children under 16 years of age work and it is also not allowed by law in our country, their family circumstances force them to work to feed themselves and their families. They are courageous young souls who are not deterred by their circumstances and struggle to help their families. Many of these children even try to continue their education or acquire some skill so their future is somewhat better. Whatever they are doing one should not forget that they are children and have dreams and aspirations, which they set aside to give a helping hand to their parents; plus, they also long to play and enjoy life as you do.
If you have any such child working in your home, please be kind and considerate towards him/her. I have seen some children belittling these young workers and talking rudely to them. This is absolutely not fair. Just remember they are children like you and have sensitive hearts and feelings. If God has put them in adverse circumstances it is through no fault of their own. If you can’t do anything else to help them at least be kind to them; don’t give them tasks that are beyond their capacity, and talk to them gently. There is no harm in even including them in your games, rather make sure that they have some spare time to relax and play. If they are interested, take out some time and try to teach them something or better still give them your books, of course, according to their age and level, and encourage them to study. On occasions, especially Eids, ask your parents to buy them new clothes or give them some of your own that you no longer plan to use, but are in good condition. But don’t do it as if you are doing them a favour, rather give it to them as a present.
Your friendly attitude will win their hearts and they will work more diligently. Once they realise that they are not being looked down upon but treated with respect. Remember all human beings are equal and there is dignity in labour.
Labour Day is not just a holiday, it is meant to make us realise the dignity of labour, whether it is older people who are working or children working at homes and workshops. They all deserve respect.
Published in Dawn, Young World, May 1st, 2021