Eight Hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will.

Many are surprised to learn that the reddest of all days, International Workers’ Day or May the 1st, finds its origins in Chicago, USA. On this day in 1886, labour unions decided to go on a general strike that ended tragically 3 days later when an unknown person threw a bomb towards the police officers who were disbanding the demonstrators in Haymarket Square. This killed 7 policemen and was followed by indiscriminate shooting that resulted in at least 4 dead civilians and countless wounded since many were afraid to seek medical attention for fear of arrest. 

But why are we still celebrating this day 136 years later? Is it just another day away from the workplace or is there still purpose for it? To answer this, it would be wise to ask what was the reason for this general strike. At the time, the average work week was one of 60 hours and the main request was for an 8-hour work day. Today, albeit we have a 40-hour week established by law, there are still many reports that this is frequently disregarded. Right away, the discussion around the legislation for the right to disconnect springs to mind. 

The right to disconnect gives a legal right to employees, not to answer work-related messages and emails outside the working hours. One would have assumed, wrongly, that this was to be a straightforward issue as it stands to reason that a worker should not be obliged, illegally, to work more than the statutory 40 hours per week without adequate compensation. Yet, the Malta Employers’ Association (MEA), in a statement, was adamant that such legislation was not as clear cut as suggested above but rather that “there are still many aspects of this concept which are nebulous”. The MEA also declared that “Malta should never be used as a guinea pig so that other countries may learn and benefit from our mistakes…”

On the other hand, one would expect a liberal and progressive government to be innovative and courageous enough to pursue such initiatives. Labour Governments have never shied away from introducing laws that challenged the status quo so it is expected that even in this respect, the Government moves on and legislates. The pro-market line of thought makes sense in that when individuals are incentivised to invest their capital, they create work places and stability for their employees. The support of the government to businesses has been amply demonstrated especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and that is why the MEA’s statement feels out of place to me.

The right to disconnect is just one of the challenges workers are still facing today. Precarious employment, occupational health and safety as well as stagnating salaries are just a few of these. Until such a day when we overcome all these obstacles, we shall keep remembering those who struggled for the labour rights we enjoy today and spare no effort to demand a better tomorrow. 

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