LABOUR DAY SPECIAL: Why celebrate Labour Day?



Labour Day in New Zealand is meant to celebrate the fight for an 8-hour working day.

That struggle has roots going back to when the first ships arrived in New Zealand with people wanting to begin a new life in the colony.

By that time the industrial revolution was in full swing and the horrors of unregulated working days was being reflected in stunted growth and early death. Child labour was common and the working day was usually 10-16 hours a day for a six-day working week.

Early socialist thinkers like Robert Owen in the UK had popularised the idea of 8-hours work, 8-hours rest and 8-hours play as a basic right in the early 1800s. Karl Marx saw it as of vital importance to the workers’ health, saying in Capital: “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.”

One early emigrant on the Ship Duke of Roxburgh in 1839 was a carpenter and joiner by the name of Samuel Duncan Parnell. He had previously worked in a large London joinery establishment with co-workers he described as “a lot of the most red-hot radicals”. At the time in London, 12 or 14-hour days were standard. Reducing working hours was an issue and Parnell refused to join a union established at the time because it wouldn’t make the issue a priority.

The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Te Ara explains what happened next on Parnell’s voyage to New Zealand:

Among Parnell’s fellow passengers was a shipping agent, George Hunter, who, soon after their arrival, asked Parnell to erect a store for him. ‘I will do my best,’ replied Parnell, ‘but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day.’ Hunter demurred, this was preposterous; but Parnell insisted. ‘There are,’ he argued, ‘twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.’ ‘You know Mr. Parnell,’ Hunter persisted, ‘that in London the bell rang at six o’clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to he lost a quarter of a day.’ ‘We’re not in London’, replied Parnell. He turned to go but the agent called him back. There were very few tradesmen in the young settlement and Hunter was forced to agree to Parnell’s terms. And so, Parnell wrote later, ‘the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot.’

Other employers tried to impose the traditional long hours, but Parnell met incoming ships, talked to the workmen and enlisted their support. A workers’ meeting in October 1840, held outside German Brown’s (later Barrett’s) Hotel on Lambton Quay, is said to have resolved, on the motion of William Taylor, seconded by Edwin Ticehurst, to work eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone offending to be ducked into the harbour. The eight hour working day thus became established in the Wellington settlement. ‘I arrived here in June, 1841,’ a settler told the Evening Post in 1885, ‘found employment on my landing, and also to my surprise was informed that eight hours was a day’s work, and it has been ever since.’ The last resistance was broken, according to Parnell, when labourers who were building the road along the harbour to the Hutt Valley in 1841 downed tools because they were ordered to work longer hours. They did not resume work until the eight hour day was conceded.

However, there were no unions or laws that could enforce the practice for most workers. Whilst it remained a condition in most trades where labour shortages often prevailed and the building industry it wasn’t able to be extended to other workers in the new colony.

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Within a few decades however unions began to be formed and agitation grew immediately for the establishment of a legal workday of eight hours. They became part of an international movement to limit the working day.

Women and children got a ten-hour day in England in 1847. French workers won a 12-hour day following a revolution in February 1848.

The International Workingmen’s Association took up the demand for an eight-hour day at its convention in Geneva in August 1866, declaring “The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive, and The Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working day.”

Te Ara picks up the story:

Agitation for the eight-hour day spread throughout the industrialised world in the 1880s. On 3 May 1886 a workers’ eight-hour strike meeting in Chicago was fired on by police. The following day, at an indignation protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown, killing and wounding a number of policemen. Although the bomb thrower was never identified, eight anarchist labour activists were arrested, charged and convicted of conspiracy to murder. Four were executed, while one committed suicide in jail.

At an 1889 international labour congress in Paris, 1 May was adopted as a date to both demonstrate for an eight-hour working day and to commemorate the ‘Haymarket martyrs’. Since 1890 the celebration of May Day as the workers’ day has been adopted in a large number of countries. In New Zealand, however, Labour Day is held on the fourth Monday in October.

New Zealand’s October Labour Day also has its origins in the 1880s eight-hour movement. In 1890 the Maritime Council, consisting of the powerful transport and mining unions, called for a ‘labour demonstration day’. The day was to celebrate workers’ trades and to promote the eight-hour day. The date chosen, 28 October 1890, was the first anniversary of the Maritime Council’s foundation. The council itself did not survive the year, being destroyed in the collapse of the 1890 maritime strike. Despite this set-back, the Labour Day demonstrations were a huge success in many parts of the country. Large processions were held in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington, with the 80-year-old Samuel Parnell leading the Wellington parade.

In the 1890s Labour Day was not an official holiday, although government offices were closed on the day. Richard Seddon’s Liberal government passed a law in 1899 declaring the second Wednesday in October as the Labour Day public holiday. In 1910 this was ‘Mondayised’, with the Labour Day holiday falling on the fourth Monday in October. While a Labour Day holiday had been gained, the union struggle to extend the eight-hour day to all workers continued.

Today, these early struggles are more relevant than ever. In New Zealand there is no legal minimum anymore. “Flexibility” became the watchword for employers in the 1980s and many of the measures that protected workers from being forced to work excessive hours were removed.

The Minimum Wage Act references a 40-hour 5-day week but we no longer have time and a half penal rates for work in excess of 8 hours in law like they still do in the US. Many industries like security operate on a 12-hour day, 6-day week much like we had in the 19th century.

Other workers subsist on zero-hour contracts and remain working far fewer hours than they want and need. Over-work for some and under-work for others remains a feature of capitalist freedom.

The labour movement should take Labour Day back as a day for fighting to regain legal regulation of the work day. Penal rates should be restored for overtime and weekend work in law. Zero-hour contracts should be outlawed. Everyone deserves regular secure rosters and shifts. No employer should be hiring new staff without offering hours available to existing staff. Full-time work should be the preferred option.

A fighting labour movement mobilising workers in their tens of thousands for fundamental changes to the existing order is where Labour Day and May Day came from. If we can regain the fighting spirit we may be able to reclaim the day as well. We would then have something to truly celebrate.


  1. The problem the labour movement faces today is that having fought for all those things and got them, what now?

    • trying hard to keep them in place, as we know with zero hour contracts and Nats changes to employment contracts. It is a constant watch, and some would take us straight back to children up chimney’s in a falsh

  2. It is a tragedy that so many workers are outside the protection of the unions. Some of this is the result of pressure from the employers and some from apathy by the workers. The only time i had a job with over time rates was at Tegal which had good union coverage.
    The mantra of ‘flexibility’ means that so many workers face the double edge of both uncertainty and restriction for each working week. A new norm of the ‘average 35 hour’ week is being established which would be great if you are in a high paid job but for the majority of workers on or just above adult minimum leaves them on the edge of financial ruin.

    • From my personal experience of closed shops in my earlier working life, the union boss was eventually more of a problem that the real boss.

      So after a hundred years or so, all the original goals of the labour movement have been enshrined in law and unions are for the most part, past their ‘sell-by’ date.

      • Considering the incidences of workplace injuries, deaths, exploitation, and low wages – I’d say there is very much a place for Unions ion our society, Andrew. Whatever experiences you (may) have had is not reflective of the entire Union movement.

  3. It would be accurate and appropriate to add another line on the bottom of the poster: “Everything that National wants to eliminate”.

  4. On the nail Mike
    I am wheelchair bound & depend on care givers who come in for a couple of hours every day to help me to shit shave shower & get dressed & into my chair.In this time they also do the odd jobs around the house I find very hard: mopping floors,making my bed,hanging out my washing,etc.
    Because I have got limited control of my bowels & bladder,they are also the folk who come in at almost any hour,when I shit or piss myself.They clean me up & clean up the mess I’ve made on my clothes, bedding, chair or floor.
    It is these people who enable me to live alone ,independently in my own home.
    Yet for doing this important work,my caregivers are paid only just above the minimum wage,& have no real control over their paid hours.Needless to say they are not unionised
    This is modern Capitalism in pratice & this is why we need to honour our working class history,by celebrating Labour Day & working towards getting people into unions.

    • Greetings David, from myself and my tetraplegic partner. You sound like you not only appreciate your carers, but respect them as well.

      The agencies who employ the carers are making a very healthy profit from the funding they receive from either MOH or ACC. They will argue differently…but take my word for it…the agencies are not in it for the love of cripples! Individualised Funding, or Bulk Funding (under ACC) could allow you to be your carers employer AND pay them a much better hourly rate. Something to think about?

      I am my partners’s fulltime carer…unpaid because MOH (he broke his neck prior to ACC) do not pay partners and spouses….and they expect us to do it anyway. Long story, but apart from the financial disadvantage…having me do the biz….works out heaps better.

      It is really good that you’ve hopped on here and been straight up about what you need in the way of support….so many people simply don’t understand the level of care required. They think that a carer can just turn up with no experience and get to work….that’s why it’s considered ‘unskilled’ work, and deserving only minimum wage.

      Thank you for your candidness.

      You have an awesome day!


  5. @ Andrew . O . Do you have a belly button ?? Do you have recurring dreams about interstellar travel ? Because honest to all the Gods, you seem like an alien to me . That could be me of course . Being an arsehole etc and if I am unduly ? I apologise . But really man . Your views are well abstract. Non human.
    We humans, we’ve got to stick together or we’re fucked. We can be individuals too and God bless us for that but by Jesus ! We must also stick together. Or we’ll get picked off. One by one.
    You can see by the down-thumbs you get, that here, within this medium , the medium of the collective conscious yet individual entity , that you are outnumbered.
    Why is that ???
    If you were lonely, sick, hungry, lost, or in some other ghastly situation where you found yourself in dire need of some other person for your safety , security , love , closeness , caring . Who do you call ? Your bank ? Your accountant ? Ghost Busters ? ( I’d call Ghost Busters ) The bastard accountant would charge you a rate based on quarter hour increments and send your by now dead self an invoice. The first thing God would say to you as you hovered outside the Pearly Gates while fumbling with a harp you didn’t know how to play and an annoying and frankly unfashionable halo fucking around with your hair style would be . “ Yeah, nah. Sorry mate. Can’t come in . Your credit’s no good “
    C’mon man ? Give us a hug ? You still have time ! Come on over and have a cup of tea and pat a kitten ? The sun’s shining over here , there’s a pretty human by that willow tree down by the creek and she/ he’s smiling at you and it’s warm and you feel safe and well and there ! There’s your friends ! And they’re pleased to see you and everything.

    The opposite scenario isn’t so much fun . Is it @ Andrewo ?

    A life ill spent working for some faceless threat that arrives in your mailbox . It warns you that if you do not shed a few more hours of your life to it, it will curtail it’s services . It used to be your creation but it was treacherously betrayed to others for a few magic beans, beans that only proved Magical to the traitor. Now, it demands your life-time or it will stop! It will STOP @ Andrewo . You will then find yourself in cold darkness. In poor health. In hunger and in loneliness . You will have decaying teeth and you will be dressed in the uniform of the terminally poor. You will be at the whim of spurious authorities who pretend they have your interests at heart but they too will betray you to the monsters who skulk in your mail box .

    And then ? As you decline , as you fall over the edge of your mortal line to descend into Hell , a Hell sadly of your own making ( And if there’s ever a definition of Hell it is that Hell of our own making, thus the dagger twists in our guts… but who’s hand’s on the grip ? Your own of course , fool )
    @ Andrewo ? Stop being a Dick. Come over here for a hug and a cup of tea. Ginger Nut ? Nice shoes man.

  6. On this day we should also spare a thought for these finest , most up standing members of their reptilian race .
    They would gleefully send your children to war for their profits, have financially ruined iconic NZ businesses and industry and have brought a country with the third highest standard of living of the OECD countries in the 1970’s to its knees then while it was bent over from exhaustion, they raped it of its resources and now blame us for being lazy and greedy for wanting time off from the foreign owned bank slavery they sold us out into.

    Dr Bryce Wilkinson .

    SIR Roger Douglas .

  7. What about supporting and bringing back to life all the Unions that protect workers and stand by them against greed and insanity ?
    Whats really wrong with strong unions and higher wages ?

    Also what about the working class working less hours and less days and receiving the same wages ? Let’s revamp the whole system to serve the workers rights and a fair pay scale and allow them more time off ? ?

    Less stress, fair pay and fair play and more time off and worker rights protected ?

    Share the wealth all you greedy mega-corporations and out of touch
    businesses only focused on profits and not workers.

  8. I have not had that history for years I loved it 1991 was a bad year for working class people and there families the labour market was deregulated the government made out the issue was voluntary unions to divide the people but it was not . it was the abolishment of
    1] the award system which was a contract
    2] the arbitration court which provided equity for working class people , scabs like ken douglas failed to fight the bolger regime and workers suffer till this very day because the loss of the 8 hour day

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