Hundred years of International Labour Day in India: Why the eight-hour work day remains relevant (2023)

May Day 2023 marks a hundred years since it was first commemorated in India on May 1, 1923, in the city of Madras. The initiative is attributed to M Singaravelu Chettiar, a towering nationalist figure, and an early communist associated with the anti-caste movement. By introducing May Day in India, Singaravelu sought to draw on a rich tradition of May Day celebrations in many parts of the world; thereby connecting the struggles of Indian workers with the global-level resistance of labour against brutal exploitation and dehumanisation. What began with a workers’ rally in Chicago, in May 1886, created a momentum which reached Indian shores by 1923, and unleashed consequences that are still being felt in different corners of the world.

The tradition of May Day which Singaravelu drew on comprised a vibrant history that can be traced back to the nineteenth century when a pertinent common demand for the legalisation of an eight-hour workday emerged from within working-class platforms and organisations in Europe and America. In 1866, for example, the International Workingmen’s Association, at its Congress in Geneva, promoted eight hours as the legal limit of the working day; arguing that it was a preliminary condition, without which efforts to emancipate the working class would prove futile. As aptly expressed by Karl Marx, “By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production… not only produces a deterioration of human labour power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself”.

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The unfolding momentum of the labour movement and its increasingly articulate critique of capitalism paved the way for many iconic labour agitations, like the Chicago Haymarket workers’ rally (1886), which in turn had a huge signalling effect. In the process, there emerged a steady realisation of the need to establish a common day for the assertion of non-negotiable labour rights, and for commemorating important labour struggles. By 1890, the Second International adopted the resolution for a worldwide struggle on the issue of a universal eight-hour work day. By the early 1900s, the May Day tradition was fairly entrenched with workers’ political organisations and trade unions stopping work wherever possible, and using the occasion to energetically demonstrate for universal working-class demands.

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These crucial landmarks in the global resistance of labour marked a strong assertion and defence of lesser work hours, which has not only challenged the internal logic of the capitalist economy to overwork a few, but also exposed the resultant problem of rampant unemployment and deterioration of workers’ health. Thereby, an intrinsic part of the spirit of May Day has been the assertion that overwork and unemployment are two sides of the same coin. The decreasing work hours of employed workers is seen as generating the scope for gainful employment of those who are unemployed. In other words, labour’s evolving critique of estranged labour came to vigorously argue against the encroachment on a large part of the day by extensive work hours, which denied many regular employment, and at the same time deprived employed workers of hours which they could otherwise utilise for politics, spending time with friends and family, leisure, and basically to enjoy life as human beings.

Clearly, by the early 20th century an entire discourse had crystallised which drew attention to an essential fact; namely, that the wealth of the economy is a creation of labour. Indeed, everything in the modern world – from a sewing needle to huge aircraft carriers and skyscrapers are products of human labour. And yet, the entitlements of labour in the economy are negligible. For all long hours of work and physical exertion, what labour gets in return is simply poverty, precarity and powerlessness.

In the early 20th century in India, the exploited, precarious condition of labour was bolstered by colonial rule. The colonial state refrained from regulation of work relations between employers and employees, arguing that these constituted a private matter of contract. However, the assemblage of large numbers of workers at crucial points of the capitalist value creation chain, and labour’s visible collective mobilisation against exploitative work arrangements in new workplaces, such as mines, plantations, dockyards, and factories, gradually propelled the recognition of employer-employee relations not as private relations, but as constituting the public domain of social relations.

At the time when Singaravelu launched the tradition of May Day in India, the horrors of the First World War and the appended radicalization of labour had facilitated worker-led revolutions in Europe, as well as numerous militant strike waves in India’s industrial centres. Hence, in order to placate (in particular) organised labour and labour militancy, governments and post-War international institutions of diplomacy sought to install a uniform standard for labour rights. In this way, the first international treaty to mention the eight-hour workday was the Treaty of Versailles, which in the annexe of its thirteenth part established the International Labour Office, now the International Labour Organization (ILO). Given the spectre of revolution that loomed large, it was no coincidence that the eight-hour workday was the first topic discussed by the ILO, culminating in the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919.

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Since then, an expansive corpus of labour laws evolved in India. However, only a small number of employer-employee work relations – associated mostly with the formal sector – have been governed by the country’s labour laws, and thus, subject to state regulation. Further, in the present conjuncture, we have seen a rapid decline in state regulation of labour-capital relations even in the formal sector. The deregulation of a large number of work relations is most evident in the rapid privatization of the public sector; the watering down of the provisions of labour inspection; the growing paradigm of self-certification by employers of their compliance with labour laws; the exemptions provided to smaller industrial and commercial establishments from furnishing proof of their compliance with statutory labour laws; and the tweaking of many statutory labour laws on occupational safety standards, work hours, minimum wage, compensation, industrial disputes, etc. by successive governments, both at the state and central level.

Consequently, the private power of employers to unilaterally fix wages, extract overtime, determine compensation, etc. has substantially increased; returning labour to the colonial precarity of the early twentieth century. We are witness to the burgeoning of an under-consuming majority, high unemployment rates, and a huge workforce of underpaid, overworked, and dehumanized workers – who are often tied down to firms that fail to enhance the size of their operations in order to avail exemptions from crucial labour laws. In dismal times such as these, the tradition of May Day proves even more relevant and potent, especially if we seek to go beyond the smokescreen of India’s supposed ‘growth’ story perpetuated by the ruling dispensation.

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The writer, a labour historian, is an assistant professor at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University


Why do we celebrate International Labour Day in India? ›

International Labour Day or May Day is celebrated every year on May 1 in a bid to promote the rights of working class and prevent them from exploitation. International Labour Day is celebrated every year on 1 May to commemorate the struggles and sacrifices of the workers' and labours' movement.

What is the significance of the May 1 being celebrated as Labor Day in most of the world but not in the US? ›

A brief history of International Workers' Day

While the US does not celebrate International Workers' Day, the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago inspired the Marxist International Socialist Congress to choose 1 May as their day of action in Paris in 1890.

Why is International Workers Day important? ›

The first day of May marks a global celebration to honour the contributions of workers, representing a key moment for trade unions to call on governments for stronger labour rights.

Which 1 in India where the Labour Day was celebrated for the first time? ›

The inaugural celebration of Labour Day in India took place on May 1, 1923, in Chennai (formerly known as Madras). This significant event was organized by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan and marked the establishment of Labour Day in India.

What is the main reason why Labor Day is in September? ›

When the United States began to seriously consider creating a national holiday for workers, U.S. President Grover Cleveland did not want to choose the May date because of its association with the Haymaker bombing, so instead picked the alternative day in September.

What was the 8 hour day strike? ›

--A slogan of the Eight-hour Day movement. May 1, 1886, was the deadline that unions and other worker organizations set for a national general strike. A number of eight-hour strikes broke out ahead of time with almost a quarter of a million people participating nationwide.

Who started the 8 hour work day? ›

8-Hour Work Day. On August 20, 1866, the newly organized National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. A coalition of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers, and reformers, the National Labor Union was created to pressure Congress to enact labor reforms.

What happens on International Workers Day? ›

May Day, also called Workers' Day or International Workers' Day, is the day that commemorates the struggles and gains made by workers and the labour movement. It is observed in many countries on May 1. In the United States and Canada, a similar observance, known as Labor Day, occurs on the first Monday of September.

Why was International Workers Day created? ›

International Workers' Day came about in the late 19th Century to commemorate the struggle for the eight hour work day. It was created after an incident in 1886, called the Haymarket Affair. In this incident, anarchists in the labor movement of Chicago were wrongly executed in the aftermath of a bombing.

How did workers first celebrate Labor Day? ›

The day was celebrated with a picnic, concert and speeches. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. Soon after that first celebration, the holiday was moved to the first Monday in September, the day we still honor. Congress passed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday in 1894.

What is Labor Day called in India? ›

The day, also known as 'May Day', is a public holiday in many countries. It is also a public holiday in India, where it is celebrated as Antarrashtriya Shramik Diwas (International Labour Day).

What is the significance of 1923 in Indian history? ›

It was during this period, on May 1, 1923, that prominent Communist leader Malayapuram Singaravelu Chettiar raised the red flag in Chennai. This was the first time in India's history that the flag was raised. In the ensuing century, it would go on to symbolise Communism in India.

What is International Labour Day short paragraph? ›

Labour Day is set to celebrate the hard work and achievements of the labor group. This is one day that is entirely devoted to the labor class. Many countries celebrate this day on a different day. However, in maximum countries, this day occurs on the 1st of May that happens to be International Workers' Day.

Where is Labour Day celebrated in India? ›

The formal celebration of Labour Day in India dates back to May 1st, 1923, initiated by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan in Chennai (Madras). Today, the day is commemorated as a holiday in states such as Assam, Bihar, Goa, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Manipur, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, and West Bengal.

Why is Labour Day celebrated in USA? ›

The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America's strength, prosperity, and well-being.

Is Labour Day a holiday in USA? ›

Labor Day is a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the first Monday in September to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States. The three-day weekend it falls on is called Labor Day Weekend.

Why is there no white after Labor Day? ›

According to the Farmer's Almanac, the concept of not wearing white after Labor Day started in the 19th century as a way for the upper class to separate themselves from the working class.

Why do we have an 8-hour work day? ›

The eight-hour workday was created during the industrial revolution as an effort to cut down on the number of hours of manual labor that workers were forced to endure on the factory floor.

Who started 8-hour work day 5 days a week? ›

On September 25th 1926, Henry Ford announced the 8-hour, 5-day work week. This was a shock for many because other factories had their workers work 6 days a week for extensive hours a day. Ford was very considerate of his workers and believed that they needed time for their family.

What was the reasoning behind limiting the workday to eight hours? ›

The eight-hour day movement (also known as the 40-hour week movement or the short-time movement) was a social movement to regulate the length of a working day, preventing excesses and abuses of working time.

Is the eight-hour workday outdated? ›

Eight hours is too long to spend at work. Recent research says so. The 8-hour workday has been the norm for more than a century, but employee surveys suggest that most people are truly productive only for about three hours every day.

What country only works 4 days a week? ›

Iceland: One of the leaders in the four-day working week

The pilot was dubbed a success by researchers and Icelandic trade unions negotiated for a reduction in working hours.

When did 8 hour shifts become a thing? ›

Here's a summary: The first law in the United States that called for an eight-hour work day was passed in Illinois in 1867. In 1926, as many history scholars know, Henry Ford — possibly influenced by US labor unions — instituted an eight-hour work day for some of his employees.

What do you say on International Workers Day? ›

-- I want to express my gratitude and thank all the nation's employees for their tremendous efforts and abilities. To all of you, a happy International Workers' Day. -- Each and every worker needs to be treated with dignity and respect.

Is Labour Day a mandatory holiday in India? ›

Is International Worker's Day a Public Holiday? International Worker's Day is not a public holiday. Businesses have normal opening hours. International Worker's Day is often also called May Day or Labour Day in India.

What are the traditions of Labor Day? ›

How to Celebrate Labor Day
  • 1 Attend a Labor Day parade or a music festival.
  • 2 Host a Labor Day party.
  • 3 Go to someone else's picnic or party.
  • 4 Enjoy a football game.
  • 5 Go swimming for the day.
  • 6 Take a day trip to a new place.
  • 7 Check out Labor Day sales.
  • 8 Drop off treats to a local fire station or hospital.

Why is May Day not celebrated in the US? ›

In the 20th century, the rise of Communism and the Cold Was also dampened associating Labor Day with 1 May in the United States. Thus, workers take to the street on the first Monday in September to continue the struggle for better working conditions.

What is the lesson of May Day for the workers? ›

What Is the Lesson of May Day? The overall lesson of May Day comes from socialist activists seeking improvement in working conditions. The belief is that unless workers stand up for themselves, they will be exploited by businesses, so they must protest peacefully for better pay, hours, and working conditions.

Which demand did the workers struggle for in May Day? ›

The Fight for the Shorter Workday

The origin of May Day is indissolubly bound up with the struggle for the shorter workday – a demand of major political significance for the working class. This struggle is manifest almost from the beginning of the factory system in the United States.

Why is Labor Day celebrated on May 1st? ›

What event does May Day commemorate? In 1889, May 1 was designated May Day, a day in support of workers, by an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, a violent confrontation that took place on May 4, 1886, in Chicago, Illinois.

Why isnt May Day celebrated in the US? ›

In the 20th century, the rise of Communism and the Cold Was also dampened associating Labor Day with 1 May in the United States. Thus, workers take to the street on the first Monday in September to continue the struggle for better working conditions.

Where did Labor Day come from May 1? ›

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference designated May 1 as Workers' Day to commemorate the Haymarket incident. The day was then celebrated for the first time on May 1, 1890. Today, Labour Day is celebrated in over 80 countries including India. In 1923, May Day was celebrated for the first time in India.

How is Labor Day celebrated around the world? ›

International Workers' Day

Labor Day is often a day for parades, demonstrations, and sometimes riots in major cities around the world. Paroles can include women's rights, immigrant working conditions, and the erosion of workers' conditions.

Is May 1st a mandatory holiday in India? ›

Is International Worker's Day a Public Holiday? International Worker's Day is not a public holiday. Businesses have normal opening hours. International Worker's Day is often also called May Day or Labour Day in India.

What is the religious significance of May Day? ›

May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Beltane and in latter times as Mary's day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to grant luck to people and livestock.

Is America the only country with Labor Day? ›

By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty states in the U.S. officially celebrated Labor Day. Canada's Labour Day is also celebrated on the first Monday of September. More than 80 other countries celebrate International Workers' Day on May 1, the ancient European holiday of May Day.

In which country Mothers day is not celebrated on same day as in us? ›

In Thailand, Mother's Day is celebrated on the 12th of August as this is the birthday of their queen - Queen Sirikit.

Why is May 1st not celebrated? ›

As the socialist trade unions and workers were already marking May 1 as Labor Day, US President Grover Cleveland was uncomfortable with choosing the month of the Haymarket Riot as Labor Day so he chose the alternative day in September.

When did Labor Day begin and why? ›

Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894 and is observed on the first Monday in September. The roots of Labor Day grew out of violent clashes between labor and police during the Haymarket Riot in 1886, when thousands of workers in Chicago took to the streets to demand an eight-hour workday.

How was the first Labor Day celebrated? ›

The first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882, when some 10,000 workers assembled to participate in America's first Labor Day parade. After marching from City Hall to Union Square, the workers and their families gathered in Reservoir Park for a picnic, concert and speeches.

How many countries celebrate Labor Day on May 1st? ›

May Day, known internationally as International Workers' Day or Labor Day, is a holiday celebrated by over 60 countries on May 1 to recognize the achievements of workers.

Why can't you wear white after Labor Day? ›

In the early 1900s, those who were well-to-do often favored lightweight, bright clothing—white linen suits and breezy dresses. Wearing white after Labor Day meant you were someone who had the means to have end-of-summer vacations. Wearing your whites beyond Labor Day was just, well… showing off.

Can you wear white after Labor Day? ›

Of course you can wear white after Labor Day, and it makes perfect sense to do so in climates where September's temperatures are hardly fall-like. It's more about fabric choice today than color.

What is the history of International Workers Day? ›

On 21 April 1856, Australian stonemasons in Victoria undertook a mass stoppage as part of the eight-hour workday movement. It became a yearly commemoration, inspiring American workers to have their first stoppage. 1 May was chosen to be International Workers' Day to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago.


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