April 25, 2019
REASONS FOR THE GENDER PAYGAP – What HR Practitioners Should Know By Professor Anita Bosch
May 29, 2019

1. Introduction

The 1stof May, known as the International Workers’ Day; Labour Day; May Day; or Workers’ Day (Bargain-Villéger, 2013; Kurrild-Klitgaard, 2013; Finnemore, 2018;www., 2012; Sewell, 2019), has become a ritual for many nations, including South Africa. 

The origin of May Day can be traced back to 1884 when the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions in the USA and Canada resolved that 8 hours shall constitute a legal day’s work  with effect from 1886, which would be a change from the then  forced 14 hours workday- the resultant widespread support for this triggered national strikes in the USA and Canada; and in Chicago this led to 6 workers being killed by the police. There were protests against these killings the next day, a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square, killing 8 police officers (Bargain- Villéger, 2013; Finnemore, 2018). This incident was subsequently known as the Hay Market Affair (Bargain- Villéger, 2013;, 2019).

In this article, we briefly discuss the culmination of major events that followed the Hay Market Affair incident and their implications on the South African Labour Relations as well as the SA Board for People Practices perspective on Workers’ Day.

2. Culmination of Major South African Events Post the Hay Market Affair

The 1stof May was selected by socialistand communistpolitical parties to celebrate the Haymarket Affair-A call was made at the Sixth Conference of the Second International, for all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate actively, on every May Day, the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the working class, and for worldwide peace(, 2012). Haymarket Affair would thenceforth become closely associated with the fight for the eight-hour workday (Bargain-Villéger, 2013).

A comprehensive history of May Day in South Africa is beyond the scope of this article, and only the highlights are presented below (www.sahistory-history-may-day-south-africa, 2012):

  • The first recorded celebration of May Dayin South Africa is reported by Ray Alexanderthat it took place in 1895 and was organised by the Johannesburg District Trades Council
  • The 1952 May Day festivities led to the largest non-violent resistance ever witnessed by South Africa, namely, the Defiance Campaign, which was a multiracial resistance campaign under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) 
  • The 100th anniversary of May Day was remembered on 1 May 1986 during which the South African Labour Federation, namely,  the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was formed, demanding that May Day be recognised as a public holiday, namely, Workers Day, and called for a stay-away.

The above-mentioned call by COSATU for stayaways for particularly on the 16thJune; and, 21stMarch for Soweto Day; and Sharpeville Day respectively, eventually led to the government conceding on the promulgation of May Day as a public holiday.

It is critical that it be noted that the May Day upheavals in various countries were not just for May Day, and in fact, in most cases, if not all, the fight for May Day was coincidental as illustrated below: 

  • Events preceding May Day in South Africa, as illustrated above, indicate that there were other issues at play, including Soweto Day; Sharpeville Day; and objecting against the suppression experienced by the Communist Party. 
  • In France, some groups saw May Day as an opportunity to strike, while others, like the French Marxists, wanted to use it for their socialist propaganda (Bargain-Villéger, 2013).
  • The socio-economic and political contexts of May Day celebrations differ, and these range from social justice and better living conditions; as well as expressions of moral values (Kurrild-Klitgaard, 2013).
  • In Germany, communist May Day occurred during an era of political strife, where in October 1918, political turmoil exploded in several cities, finishing in the November Revolution on the 8thto the 9thNovember and the resignation of the Kaiser (Sewell, 2019).

3. The Role of Organised Labour on Workers’ Rights and Transformation 

The role of organised labour in South Africa in relation to workers’ rights, particularly the fundamental and internationally recognised worker rights is well known and comprehensively documented.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has developed four categories of fundamental rights and principles and these are freedom of association and recognition of the right to collective bargaining; elimination of all types of compulsory labour; complete abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in relation to occupation and employment (Blanpain et al, 2007; ILO, 2007; Ukpere, 2009; Craig & Link, 2010; Finnemore, 2018; Healy & Link, 2012; Holtzhausen,  2012; Rodgers et al, 2009; Rycroft, 2012; Venter & Levy, 2012). 

In South Africa, these fundamental rights are enshrined in the Constitution (Le Roux & Strydom, 2009; Finnemore, 2018) and the Labour Relations Act (Grogan, 2010; Levy, Kelly & Levy, 2010). The ILO refers to these rights as core or fundamental rights in that the exercising of other rights is dependent on them (Anner & Caraway, 2010). 

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action 1993 declared human rights and fundamental freedoms as the birth right of all human beings and that the first responsibility of governments should be their promotion and protection (Smith, 2012).

 South African social partners (government, organised labour and employer organisations) have under the auspices of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) incorporated these in our labour law dispensation. 

Through The 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the member states (including South Africa) demanded that all countries, irrespective of their ratification, should in good faith respect the fundamental rights and their corresponding conventions (Healy & Link, eds.:2012).Table 2 below shows the fundamental rights and the corresponding rights, referred to as conventions (Anner & Caraway, 2010) or enabling rights. 

Table 2: Fundamental and corresponding ILO rights or conventions 

Source: Adapted from Anner & Caraway (2010).

Organised labour has vigorously and consistently fought and continues to do so for the above-mentioned fundamental rights; as well as matters relating to social justice, namely, poverty, unemployment and community-related matters. In this regard, we should all be reminded of a case in point when COSATU during the height of apartheid lodged a complaint of grave violations of trade union rights with the ILO, resulting in an ILO Fact-Finding and Conciliation Commission in South Africa (Rodgers et al, 2009). 

4. Our View as the SA Board for People Practices

We reiterate and appreciate the critical role played by organised labour in South Africa in relation to workers’ rights and the influence this has had due to their participation in various local and international forums such as the ILO; and NEDLAC, in shaping our labour relations and constitutional dispensation. In this regard, we note the following (Le Roux & Strydom, 2009; Bendix, 2010; Venter & Levy, 2012; Finnemore, 2018):

  • Chapter 2 of the Constitution contains several provisions of relevance to fundamental human and workers’ rights, namely, the right to equality; protection of dignity; protection against servitude, forced labour and discrimination; the right to pursue a livelihood; protection for children against exploitative labour practices and work that is hazardous to their well-being; and a guarantee of the right to fair labour practices.
  • The Labour Relations Act (LRA) was enacted to inter alia, give effect to section 23 of the Constitution which deals specifically with labour relations and guarantees everyone’s right to fair labour practices.
  • The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) gives effect to and regulates the constitutional right to fair labour practices through the establishment and enforcement of basic minimum conditions of employment.
  • The Employment Equity Act (EEA) is aimed at the elimination and prohibition of unfair discrimination in the workplace.
  • The improvement of the employment prospects of those previously disadvantaged by unfair discrimination is facilitated through the Skills Development Act (SDA) which seeks to redress those disadvantages through training and education.


As organised labour prepares to celebrate its victories in terms of workers’ rights on the 1stMay 2019, the SABPP and its members wishes them happy and memorable festivities and we all in unison say: Halala organised labour!!!! Halala!!!

Maphutha Diaz 
Head of Standards and Projects


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