Inside labour: Eight-hour working day still just a dream

2014-05-08 10:00

Yet another May Day has come and gone, with all the usual fanfare, rallies and pledges of worker solidarity.

But it has been 158 years since the first protest that gave rise to May Day – and the basic demand that launched it has still not universally been met.

That demand was for an eight-hour working day – eight for work, eight for leisure and eight for sleep – something we still have to achieve not just in South Africa, but in many other countries.

And the consequences of not agreeing and adhering to this demand are all too often tragic.

The first demand for an eight-hour working day was made by organised workers in Australia in 1856. This was before motorised transport, motorways, mass transit systems and trucking juggernauts. Exhausted workers often had accidents, but usually damaged or killed only themselves.

Much the same applied 30 years later in Chicago, when a general strike was called by workers demanding, primarily, an eight-hour working day. The powers that be drafted in a strong police presence to break the strike. The police opened fire, killing four strikers and wounding an unknown number of others.

So those early trade unionists called a protest meeting on Haymarket Square on May 4.

The police baton charged and someone – the police said anarchists; the socialists and anarchists claimed it was an agent provocateur – threw a bomb and a police officer died.

Five anarchists, including three who had been speakers on the platform at the time, were arrested and charged with murder on a similar common-purpose basis that has seen 270 Marikana strikers charged with the murder of 34 miners shot dead by police in 2012.

One of the anarchists died in detention and the other four were hanged, passing into labour movement history as the “Haymarket martyrs”.

Those deaths gave impetus to the establishment in 1890 of May 1 as a day of international labour solidarity. And it was first celebrated in South Africa in 1904 by a group of immigrant workers from Europe.

Locally, there were many pressing issues other than an eight-hour day confronting South African workers, so this demand became secondary.

What those workers faced in those days is well summed up by a newspaper report of a 1931 May Day march in Joburg by an estimated 1?000 black and white workers.

The report described the march as a “bedraggled procession in which dirty-looking natives of the lowest class marched shoulder to shoulder with Europeans, many of them of obvious low mentality”.

Those days are now past. May Day is a holiday and labour laws exist that are on a par with some of the best anywhere. But the eight-hour working day remains elusive for most workers.

Among such workers are the drivers of taxis, trains, buses and juggernaut truck-and-trailer combinations who should work even fewer hours.

And while conditions for train drivers have improved over the past decade, the same does not apply to many bus, truck and, especially, long-distance taxi drivers.

Sleep deprivation has similar effects to being drunk or having driving abilities impaired by a hefty dose of alcohol. Long or irregular hours and split shifts can have a cumulative effect over weeks and months, resulting in drivers

being almost permanently “drunk on the job”.

For example, to reach the blood alcohol level for a drink-driving conviction takes just 17 sleepless hours.

Anyone awake for 21 hours has the same impaired capacity as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, well beyond the level for a drink-driving conviction.

It was an awareness they could be a danger on the roads that lay behind the recent strike by Metrobus drivers in Joburg. They and some of the larger trucking and bus companies are unionised and tend to have better records in this regard, but many pay no heed to this problem.

Drivers are often under incredible pressure to meet deadlines, often well outside agreements struck within the official bargaining council.

Unofficial bonuses are also paid for the delivery of goods in less than the normal time stipulated.

So perhaps the original May Day demand should again become a priority – especially in an election year.

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