Today, being the fourth Monday of October, is for most Kiwis these days little more than a public holiday known a Labour day. For most its history is unknown, and the reason why it’s commemorated at all is forgotten.
Labour Day commemorates the struggle for an eight-hour working day in Aotearoa New Zealand. It seems that no matter what date Labour Day or its equivalent is commemorated in numerous other nations, there seems to be an individual who is acknowledged as being the catalyst for the occasion. In Aotearoa it is an individual by the name of Samuel Parnell.
Parnell, a carpenter from London, emigrated to New Zealand in 1840, and amongst his fellow passengers was George Hunter, a shipping agent, and on arrival in Wellington, Hunter asked Parnell to build him a store. According to Kiwi folklore, Parnell responded “I will do my best, but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day … There are 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 tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.”
Hunter had little option but to concede to Parnell’s demands as skilled labour was critically short in supply. Parnell with the help of other Wellington workers set about making the eight hour working day the standard, informing all new immigrants that the eight hour day was the “custom” of the new settlement. In October 1840, Wellington workmen made a ruling that the working day was between 8am and 5pm, and according to legend, anyone found guilty of breaking this “commandment” was tossed into the harbour for their efforts.
The first Labour Day was celebrated on 28 October 1890 when thousands of workers participated in parades across the country. Government workers and many others were granted a day off work to attend. By this time the majority of workers enjoyed an eight hour day, but it was not a legal requirement. The fledgeling union movement wanted the Liberal Government of the day to legislate an eight hour working day, The Liberal Party was reluctant to upset the business community, and Kiwis had to wait for the arrival of the first Labour government which introduced the 40 hour week.
However, the Liberal government did introduce an industrial conciliation and arbitration system in 1894 – a world innovation at the time, and in 1899 made labour day a statutory holiday, with the date set as the second Wednesday of October. Ten years later it was “Mondayised” to the fourth Monday of October.
Over the following decades, the celebratory nature of Labour Day declined and certainly from my earliest memory of the 1950s Labour day parades were all but forgotten and the day had become “just another holiday”. It’s now late evening and as the day draws to a close, I wonder how many of my fellow Kiwis realise how much our way of life, has been influenced by the those early unionists who understood better than many of us today the importance of a proper life balance.