Labour Day by Nilanjan Raghunath

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Labour Day or May Day is celebrated in many countries on 1 May. In the United States, it takes place on the first Monday in the month of September and therefore the long weekend is called the Labour Day Weekend. It is a creation of the labour movement dedicated to the economic and social achievements of American workers. More than 100 years after the first Labour Day obser- vance, there is still some doubt about the exact origin of this holiday for workers. Some accounts show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labour, was the first to propose a day to honour those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Others believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, proposed this holiday in 1882. (1560))


Source: US Department of Labour

This national and international commemoration of labour is of special significance to our Little Red Dot and has evolved over the years. Officially introduced in 1960 after the PAP came into power, Labour Day in Singapore signified the march towards equality and dignity of workers against colonial rule (learn more about Singapore’s early days at the History SG section of the National Library).

Singapore’s labour movement modernized in the 1960s and focused on economic development. The labour movement works on the model of tripartism, which is founded on ideals of cooperation between unions, employers and the government. The labour movement is also formalized under the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), which is a confederate of trade unions and professional associations. Its objectives are to “help Singapore stay competitive and workers remain employable for working people in Singapore and have evolved into festive and family-oriented activities.


Source: National Transport Workers Union

A host of events are also organised to honour migrant workers. Singapore needs vast numbers of human resources to fill various jobs. Migrants in recent years have included highly skilled foreign talent working in the education and corporate sectors, and those employed in the construction industry, domestic realm and service industries. There are about 1.4 million foreign workers, with over 500,000 working as construction workers and domestic helpers, holding work permits and doing manual work. These people have contributed enormously to cosmopolitanism and economic development in Singapore. The Ministry of Manpower and local NGOs are working hard to improve working and living conditions for migrant workers.


Source: Channel NewsAsia

Historically, Singapore has benefited considerably from migrant workers. One notable group is the samsui women. While most construction work undertaken in Singapore today is by males, this has not always been the case. Samsui women came here from Samshui, China between the 1920s to the 1940s mostly seeking construction work, and some as domestic helpers (amahs) in wealthy households. This was the result of immigration restrictions imposed by the colonial government on male migrants from 1928 to 1933, but with no similar restriction on female migrants. These women wore red headgear and blue and black samfoo while undertaking life; to enhance the social status and well-being of workers; and to build a strong, responsible and caring labour movement.”


Source: The Straits Times, May 2016

In its 2016 May Day message, the NTUC announced that the labour movement would expand its services to professionals, managers and executives. Such services include job placements, career guidance and skills upgrading, which is highly encouraged by the government with programs such as SkillsFuture, so that workers and managers of all levels are future ready. As the economy evolves, trade unions in Singapore might face challenges in continued membership, as millennial workers are not necessarily confined to one specialization and tend to change jobs more frequently than previous generations of workers did.


Source: The Straits Times, April 2016

Besides the official May Day Rally, many May Day celebrations are organised to show appreciation for all backbreaking work that contributed significantly to Singapore’s early development. They lived mostly in the Chinatown area where they shared accommodation with other women. The rent they paid was about 80 cents to $1.20 per month. Many had taken a vow not to marry and sent money home to their families in China. Very few of them are alive today, and those who remain are in their 80s and 90s. View this documentary about the samsui women.


As we rest from our labour on 1 May, let us take a moment to appreciate those whose hard work forged the society we comfortably live, work, and play in today.

About The Author

ld-2017-7Dr Nilanjan Raghunath is an Assistant Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Her areas of expertise include Sociology of Technology, Work and Organizations. In particular she studies the future of technology-impacted work, social reputation, collaboration and disruptive innovation. Prior to her academic career, she was a research consultant for small and medium sized start-ups in emerging economies. Her methodological expertise includes qualitative analysis and rhetorical analysis of various organizational and social actors.