FFE Magazine

International Worker’s Day


    Every 1st of May business establishments in many countries around the world close up and let their employees enjoy the day as freely as they want.


Many workers use this opportunity to simply take a break from the workplace.   But International Worker’s Day is so much more than that. 1 May, also known as Labour Day and May Day, is also a day that commemorates the rights and value of the average employee in society.


Origins   Labour Day traces its roots from the labour union strikes that began in the 19th century in America and Europe. During the Industrial Revolution, which blossomed in the 1820s, working conditions had been extremely disadvantageous for the common man since factories overworked their employees (men, women and children) disregarding their health, forcing up to 16 work hours for six days a week.

Robert Owen

British thinker and reformer Robert Owen then promoted the eight-hour working format, which campaigned for ‘Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.’ The idea spread throughout industrialised nations by the 1850s.


Towards the turn of the century, workers around the world were taking to the streets to pressure factory owners and government to give in to their demand for an eight-hour workday.

Flier calling for workers to a demonstration in Haymarket

Flier calling for workers to a demonstration in Haymarket

In 1894, riots sparked in Ohio condemning officials of the increasing number of unemployed. The riots, which began in 1 May, were called May Day and later brought greater awareness on improving labour conditions. Another more fatal riot in Chicago on 4 May 1896, dubbed the Haymarket Affair, which ended with four demonstrators dead, pushed discussions further.


The first time 1 May became international movement calling for workers to stop working and demand for their rights was in 1904. The International Socialist Conference convened in Amsterdam and asked ‘social parties and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate on 1 May for the establishment of 8-hour day, for the demands of the working class and for peace.’

Engraving of the riot in Haymarket

Engraving of the riot in Haymarket

The international Socialist formation of parties and organisations, the Second International, then called on all its members to ‘stop work on 1 May, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.’ Since then, working groups among many countries lobbied to make 1 May an official holiday and succeeded.


Labour Day in the Philippines   Labour Day in the Philippines is a national holiday which means that businesses may close for the day. For many Filipinos earning the minimum wage or below and who experience many disadvantages in the workplace, it is also a day to vent out their sentiments.

The burning of effigies is a common symbol of denouncing government inaction

The burning of effigies is a common symbol of denouncing government inaction

Protests on 1 May are often held by different labour groups around the country. Filipino workers often demand higher wages, greater tax relief, job security, solutions to unemployment, tenure, gender equality, abolition of anti-union policies and many more. These protests are a way for workers to show their solidarity towards attaining greater respect and value in the workplace.


Labour Day around the world   Like in the Philippines, workers from many other countries around the world also mark their May Day celebrations with protests demanding for better working conditions:


America. In the US, Labour Day is celebrated in September. However, many trade groups still commemorate 1 May with large rallies to remember the events of May Day and Haymarket Affair. Immigrant groups who also experience exploitation in the workplace also use the date to call for greater immigrant rights and an end to inequality.


Britain. Banks, schools and businesses are often closed on 1 May. Clashes between protesters and police are frequent in the past. Today, demonstrations are often marked with peace.


Canada. Although Labour Day is officially celebrated in September, Canadians still mark 1 May with protests from unions and left party groups. 1 May is also the date when authorities raise the minimum wage if approved.


France. In France, Labour Day is the only day wherein employers are obliged to give their workers leave. Rallies are a tradition in France.  A 1500s tradition also has some of the French practice the giving of lily of the valley flowers to family and friends.

A vendor sells lily of the valley to protesters in France

A vendor sells lily of the valley to protesters in France

Germany. Labour Day in Germany has been marked with a history of violence dating back to the years after World War II. Large numbers of protesters from labour unions and left parties take to the streets has often led to riots. Street fairs are frequently held at the same day to quench riots.


India. 1 May is a public and bank holiday in India and is also known as Kamgar Din in Hindi. Labour movements are frequent and joined by socialist and communist parties.


Italy. Aside from demonstrations, 1 May has become a day of artists in Italy with the popular Concerto del Primo Maggio or 1 May’s Concert organised by labour unions. The concert is often broadcast and draws thousands yearly.


Japan. Unlike other countries, the Japanese do not celebrate 1 May as a national holiday. However, since it falls between other significant holidays (called the Golden Week), many workers get a day-off. Many go on a holiday to make the most out of the week-long break.


Sweden. Labour Day is often spent by left parties and socialists as a day to discuss politics. The Social Democratic Party also holds an annual march to the Norra Bantorget, the centre of Sweden’s labour movement.

A family feeling from Taksim Square in Istanbul

A family fleeing from Taksim Square in Istanbul

Turkey. The Turkish’s celebration of Labour Day is especially tense because they also commemorate the Taksim Square Massacre of 1977, a day when around 40 labour protesters were killed. Many speculate anti-communist government branches and even America’s CIA as the perpetrators, but the case remains unsolved.


Other traditions   The weight and significance of the Labour Day celebrations has unfortunately marred some other celebrations held in the 1st of May. Here are other traditional occasions that are held on the same day:  


Feast of Saint Joseph. The Catholic Church also sought to tie up its cause with the common man. In 1955, they dedicated 1 May to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of workers and craftsmen. The 1 May feast for Saint Joseph the Worker is, however, only an Optional Memorial as it counteracts with Labour Day.


Spring May Day. 1 May also has an older tradition in Europe, dating pre-Christian times and commemorates the Celtic festival Belthane and the Germanic Walpurgis Night, both celebrations of spring. Today, this pre-Christian May Day is celebrated by dancing in maypoles and leaving ‘May day baskets’ of flowers and treats on friends and neighbours’ doors.



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