Published on Jobs and Development

A Post-Labor Day Check on Key Worker Rights

This page in:

Countries around the world formally commemorate workers' contributions with a national holiday. But whereas over 80 countries celebrate "International Workers' Day" on May 1st, the United States observes "Labor Day" on the first Monday of September. The United States also marks the day with parades, festivals, and barbeques, events that largely avoid having the same political overtones that "May Day" has in many countries. This is despite the fact that the key events that inspired the holidays actually occurred in the United States. 

The event that spawned both holidays occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886, but different political dynamics reflect how they have come to be commemorated in different ways. What became known as the Haymarket Affair (or Haymarket Massacre) started as a peaceful rally in Haymarket Square to support workers that were striking for an 8-hour work day. It turned deadly when a bomb was thrown (the culprit is still unknown), followed by a shoot-out that killed several police officers and civilians. The trial was widely publicized, with eight anarchists sentenced to death on conspiracy charges.

One year later, the event inspired demonstrations to honor those who had died and the workers' struggle and was picked up by the Second International for future protests. Then, in 1894, there were two further deadly clashes between U.S. officials and striking workers – the May Day Riots in Cleveland and Pullman Strike violence in July in Chicago - fueling a rush to make a federal holiday to recognize and celebrate workers' contributions. President Cleveland opposed choosing May 1st given its connection with the deadly events, as well as its association with socialists' and anarchists' efforts to politicize that date. Instead, he chose the month of September, picking up on an annual celebration for many unions that had begun in 1882, initially organized by New York’s Central Labor Union, centered on parades and festivals for workers and their families. So on September 1, 1894, the United States had its first official Labor Day to celebrate workers while seeking to diffuse rather than commemorate organized labor's struggles. 

With both May Day and Labor Day born in reaction to workers' fight to limit their workweek, I was interested to see how widespread practices are now across countries (see the Jobs Databank). As it turns out, based on information from 182 economies, work weeks can vary from 5 to 7 days:

  • 160 countries mandate the maximum days a week a worker can work is 6 days.
  • 12 countries restrict the workweek to 5 days (Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Estonia, The Gambia, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Mongolia, Romania, and Sierra Leone).
  • 10 countries allow employers to ask workers to work all 7 days (Australia, Georgia, Guyana, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, New Zealand, Palau, Puerto Rico, and St. Kitts and Nevis).

It's also better to work longer hours in some countries than others: 

  • 95 countries mandate additional pay (generally double wages) for workers who work on "days of rest," while 82 do not.
  • 5 countries mandate triple pay (Azerbaijan, Jordan, Lao PDR, St. Lucia, and West Bank and Gaza).
  • 17 countries also mandate additional pay for night-time work.

As for unionization, May Day and Labor Day has long reflected the efforts of unions to gain further rights for workers. But today, a smaller proportion of workers are unionized (although more workers may be covered by other collective bargaining arrangements), with the rate in some countries dropping by 10-20 percentage points since 1990 (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Unionization has been trending down over the past 20 years

Click figure to see full-size image.

There's also a considerable variation across countries, with rates generally higher in Europe (80 percent or higher in Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland), China (90 percent), and South Africa (close to 60 percent). The U.S. rate is now at the lower end, with around 12 percent (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Most Nordic countries and China top the unionized list
Click figure to see full-size image.

Much has been accomplished since 1886 in achieving better working conditions and workers rights in many countries - and this is indeed a cause for celebration. But the agenda isn't complete. Legislative protections don't exist in every country, and even where they do, there can be gaps in enforcement. Millions still face unsafe working conditions, work as forced labor or child laborers, or have restrictions on their ability to bargain collectively. It is worth using the holidays, whether in September or May, to highlight what still needs to be achieved.

This post was first published on the Jobs Knowledge Platform.


Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000