It’s our collective responsibility to advance the nation

This year marks the 133rd year since the first May Day was observed, not only highlighting the historical struggles of workers, but also the legacy of trade unions and labour organisations that have been pivotal in the fight for fair employment standards. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

This year marks the 133rd year since the first May Day was observed, not only highlighting the historical struggles of workers, but also the legacy of trade unions and labour organisations that have been pivotal in the fight for fair employment standards. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 5, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS past Wednesday, the understated but widely regarded annual International Workers’ Day was observed. On this day – also known as May Day or Labour Day – various nations across the world pay tribute to the millions of working-class men and women across our society.

Workers’ Day is a celebration of the contributions of workers and labourers, the advancement and promotion of their rights, and the commemoration of our historic labour movement. The theme for 2024’s Workers’ Day and month is “30 Years of Freedom”.

This year marks the 133rd year since the first May Day was observed, not only highlighting the historical struggles of workers, but also the legacy of trade unions and labour organisations that have been pivotal in the fight for fair employment standards.

This is particularly vital, considering that the common theme across global societies was the enrichment of imperialist nations using free (slave) labour. In South Africa, workers formally fought for political rights and representation – and as such, human rights – for almost a century before any change was enacted.

In December of 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) rallied for the recognition of Workers’ Day as a public holiday, despite this being banned-in-advance by the apartheid government.

Cosatu mobilised approximately 1.5 million workers, comprised of thousands of school pupils, tertiary students, taxi drivers, hawkers, shopkeepers, vendors, domestic workers, self-employed citizens, unemployed individuals, and many more.

The plight for improved working conditions became intricately linked with the fight to dismantle systemic segregation, particularly during apartheid when South Africa’s working classes were unimaginably repressed.

Even prior to 1994, Workers’ Day had become a notable rallying symbol against the segregation and oppressions of apartheid, widely used to organise demonstrations and foster widespread resistance.

This day is not only a fantastic reminder of the determination, strength and resilience embodied by anti-apartheid activists, but the power of communities in enacting collaborative efforts that meaningfully transform our society for our betterment.

Workers’ Day places an emphasis not only on corporate workers and civil servants, but also on informal sector workers, freelance workers and blue-collar workers that are commonly overlooked.

Ultimately, the informal sector represents 90% of all global jobs, whereas formal employment represents only 10%. According to Statista, as of 2023, South Africa had 18.9 million people employed in total, which amounts to about 31% of the population.

Most of these employees are comprised of the agricultural sector, the social and community services sector, and the trade industry.

Workers Day gives us an opportunity to honour those who are pertinent to the function and effectiveness of our society, those who are not afforded the same protections and security that is offered in formal employment contracts.

This includes domestic workers, gardeners, refuse disposal services, security guards, factory workers, cashiers, public transport drivers, waiters and waitresses, and parking lot attendants, to name a few.

This day also calls for society to observe front-line workers and those employed in dangerous occupations, such as factory workers, nurses and doctors, construction workers, police officers and other law enforcement agencies.

There are innumerable employees who place their lives on the line to provide essential services to our society. This Workers’ Day should therefore be grasped as an opportunity to outline the workplace strengths, weaknesses, and employment challenges that are faced by everyday citizens.

In our multicultural, pluralistic context, cultural and religious differences often evoke debates about what is acceptable. A prime example of this is the beads worn by sangomas.

Almost annually, there is a student or an employee who is unfairly dismissed or removed from their workplace due to their traditional-religious attire. These often emerge as contentions with racist employers who impose bias systemic discriminations for their own personal appeasement.

Another traditional-religious attire that is frequently contested is the hijab (Muslim headscarf). Only last year, the Islamic Medical Association of South Africa was embattled with the Department of Health (DOH) over the attempted banning of the hijab in the standardised uniform of nurses across the nation.

Similar stories shine light on this issue, such as the story of Sandile Mbongwa who was fired from Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) for wearing an isphandla (traditional animal-skin wristband). This highlights the level of intolerance and separatism that exists in our society.

Stories of pupils who have been forcefully shaved by school administrators, or been publicly shamed by lecturers, or have faced unjustified written and verbal warnings, or have even been blacklisted by derogatory ex-employers, are rife across our society.

Workers’ Day is not only about physical workplaces, but also the general environment in which South African employees are established. Today, the price of living has stratified, over half of the entire population is unemployed and living under the poverty line, water and power outages are a theme of the day, and the rate of illiteracy – both in children and adults – is crippling.

However, innumerable citizens are actively engaged in attaining various streams of income. Young unemployed graduates, in particular, have been unconventionally strict about prospective companies’ emphasis on self-development, and the opportunities available for advancement.

Although a vast majority of the national population are living precariously, hand-to-mouth, it is vital that employees are aware of their rights, advocate for their opportunities, and are awarded realistic opportunities for advancement.

Incentives, benefits, provisions, dependability, and safe working conditions are the very basic tenets that should be instilled in the workplace - and that are intrinsically enshrined in our constitutional rights.

We need to ensure that our society upholds and promotes innovative independent businesses that not only grow our society exponentially, but also our nation’s economy.

Working environments that foster freedom of expression, common respect and trust, fair practices, and safe working conditions, ultimately contribute to fostering a more conducive and advanced economy.

It is vital that workers across the nation are aware of the varying forms of racial discrimination, institutional biases, cultural or religious discrimination, sexual harassment, disability discrimination, and many others, that they could be subjected to.

We need to ensure that our current systems are fostering educated adept individuals who are making informed choices. We need to ensure that we are fostering a future filled with citizens who meaningfully contribute to our society and our future generations. We need to ensure that our nation’s social, political, legal, and cultural systems are working to the benefit of its people.

South Africa has one of the widest income gaps in the world. Laws and legal developments around income equality are often vague, or extensively postponed. Workers’ Day is especially crucial to highlighting the gender pay gap challenges in the workplace.

The gender pay gap means that women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts. According to South Africa Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-Tied), “women only constitute one third of the higher-paying management positions in the workforce”.

And in the view of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, South African women receive up to 35% less earnings than their male constituents. Transparency, accountability, and the spreading of knowledge around women’s rights and inequalities are pertinent to redressing the gender pay gap.

Good workplaces thrive off diversity, effective communication, fairness, and flexibility above all else. Workers’ Day therefore gives us an opportunity to reflect on the commonalities of our people, rather than our differences. It helps us to focus solely on what we need as a people to foster a nurturing society.

As members of society, we experience politics in varying, but personal ways. When we experience a power outage, or water services are cut off, or transportation is disrupted, this is political corruption.

When transportation cannot enter your neighbourhood due to badly built roads and poor infrastructure, or when the wi-fi at your local library is ineffective, or when hospitals and clinics are closed down due to underfunding, this is political corruption, being experienced by people on a personal level – one that directly impacts their lived reality.

The value of uniting and consolidating our society on a social level has been devastatingly undermined. As we move closer to the upcoming elections, it is vital that we are empowered and informed, not only about our political arena, but our society at large.

Collectively, workers have the power to enact drastic change. Workers have the power to enforce and uphold their human rights. Workers have the right to redress problematic policies and structures that seek to hinder their personal and professional growth.

Now more than ever, employees of all ages are setting boundaries on their environment and their rights when it comes to employment dynamics. Collective participation, centred upon discourse and action, is pertinent to uplifting workers’ rights and lives in South Africa.

Workers need to hold their employers accountable, while ensuring that their professional development is at the forefront. Workers need to fight for a society that will elevate and develop themselves and their future generations.

The masterful writer and activist Alice Walker once truthfully said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” While the renowned entrepreneur and activist Madam CJ Walker stated: “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come, get up and make them!”

* Tswelopele Makoe is an Intersectional Gender & Social Justice Activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent & IOL, Global South Media Network and Eswatini Times. She is also an Andrew W. Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.