FOR over 124 years May 1 has been celebrated around the world as International Workers' Day.
This workers' holiday began with the struggle for an eight-hour day in Australia, England, the US and Canada.
It reflects the history of the sweat and blood of the toiling masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
The first roots of May Day are to be found in Australian working people's conditions.
As Rosa Luxemburg put it: "The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organise a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favour of the eight-hour day."
Thus the demand for a paid holiday and amelioration of working conditions exemplified by the demand for an 8-hour working day are historically interwoven.
Then, working conditions were atrocious and many a worker lost life and limb because of exhaustion and lapse of concentration which, in many cases, resulted in serious physical injury.
Industrial production had imposed objectionable working conditions such as long hours, child labour and a 16-hour working day.
Given this history, May Day therefore reflects the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. In 1817, Robert Owen, a Welsh socialist intellectual and revolutionary, evocatively captured the idea of an eight-hour working day in the slogan: "Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest".
What Owen meant was that the first eight hours of the day were for labour while the second would be for recreational activities such as reading, sports, and so on. The last eight hours would be for rest to replenish energy expended at work.
This was to be an important conceptual framework of how the rights of workers were to be understood. The first eight hours of labour were to be committed to work, this being a drastic reduction from the 16 hours extracted from workers before.
As an international labour practice, the 8-hour working day, adopted throughout the world under the rubric of fair labour practice, has been absorbed in South Africa's democratic dispensation.
In fact, in South Africa, workers started celebrating this day in 1915 and continued to fight for it to become a paid public holiday. The SA democratic government has since elevated May Day to its rightful national status.
Recognising the exploitation of South African workers, the government has been working for the betterment of workers' conditions since 1994.
Our Constitution guarantees workers rights such as fair labour practice, the right to form and join trade unions, strike and picket, and the right to collective bargaining.
In 1995 the government introduced, among other progressive labour laws, the Labour Rations Act (LRA) which gives rights to all workers, including domestic, farm and public sector workers.
The LRA ensures that workers cannot be dismissed for being members of a union or for legal strike action. It further requires employers to consult on major decisions such as retrenchment. Also, it set up the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration to provide easier and faster dispute settlement.
All of these changes are not an outcome of government "benevolence" but the result of sustained workers' struggles. It is these struggles here and elsewhere in the world that have resulted in improved working conditions protected by progressive labour laws.
As Owen's slogan states, workers need leisure time as much as they need work time. Unfortunately, with the onset of colonialism, the experiences of the working people from developing countries have not changed much. In South Africa under apartheid black workers were exploited at the factory floor and denied social justice outside their places of work.
For instance, the Group Areas Act had located living spaces of black people far away from their places of work, meaning that they had to use most of their leisure time travelling to work.
Many residential areas designated for black people scarcely had amenities for leisure and even fewer had facilities for intellectual stimulation such as libraries.
The rhetorical question that arose out of this situation was: what is the black worker to do with his-her leisure time, in the absence of suitable conditions?
Thus part of challenges government is wrestling with as it transforms our society is to address the basic needs of the poor.
Addressing this historical backlog also happens against the background of globalisation and related economic ills such as the recent global economic recession.
The recession has had a devastating effect on workers all over the world, not least on many South African workers.
lThe writer is deputy president of South Africa