Economic Growth

Have we fulfilled the promise of International Workers’ Day?

International Workers’ Day, or ‘May Day,’ will be observed on Saturday 1 May.

International Workers’ Day, or ‘May Day,’ will be observed on Saturday 1 May. Image: Unsplash

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • International Workers’ Day, or ‘May Day,’ will be observed on Saturday 1 May.
  • Some countries have managed to significantly strengthen workers’ rights since observance began in the 19th century.
  • Still, much remains to be done to improve conditions for the global workforce.

Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden unveiled a plan to promote worker organizing: a notable effort in a country where union membership tumbled to 10.8% of the workforce by 2020 from 20.1% as recently as 1983.

The move came at an appropriate time, just a few days ahead of what will be observed around the world as International Workers' Day.

Around the world, that is, but not in the US – which long ago slotted its Labor Day in September and sought during the Cold War to re-brand May Day, deemed to have communist overtones, as “Law Day.” Still, the White House union initiative, designed to foster a more inclusive middle class, marks a move in the direction of strengthening workers’ rights.

International Workers’ Day originated in the 19th century as a way to honour efforts to win an eight-hour workday, at a time when factory labourers in industrializing countries would regularly clock 70 hours or more per week, and conditions were frequently abysmal. Since then, Germany has cut its annual working hours by an estimated 60%, while the UK has seen a roughly 40% reduction.

In addition, in many countries child labour has diminished (children were once prized by factory owners in the US for being cheaper and less likely to strike), and the circumstances for workers in general have vastly improved.

In Sweden, parents can now share 480 days of paid parental leave, while in Austria, at least one out of every 25 jobs must be filled by disabled workers, and Germany plans to increase its national minimum wage to €10.45 ($12.65) per hour by next year. In Denmark, employers aren’t legally allowed to prevent employees from joining a union.

The ratio of workers in Europe who are union members tends to be higher in Scandinavian countries, and lower in central and eastern states where unions may have been mostly used for political purposes before the fall of the Berlin Wall – an era when 1 May celebrations were often compulsory.

Image: World Economic Forum

There are questions about traditional union models and whether they make sense for modern “knowledge workers.” Increasingly prevalent gig work can undermine collective bargaining, and some have suggested the eight-hour-day fought for long ago may no longer even be relevant. Frequently, workers have been aggressively deterred from making any initial progress on unionizing at all.

A high-profile union drive at an Amazon warehouse recently ended with employees voting against the effort, and the company’s founder Jeff Bezos subsequently vowed to “do a better job” for its workers.

In China, where a “long-hours culture” has spread from factory workers to white-collar employees, some have started to publicly propose that the idea of an eight-hour workday might still be relevant in the 21st century, after all.

In many developing countries, there is much work yet to be done when it comes to ensuring not just humane working hours, but better conditions in general. Later this month, the Bangladesh accord on fire and building safety – a pact binding hundreds of companies in the wake of the horrific collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka that killed at least 1,132 people – is scheduled to expire.

The staggering size of the informal economy, where workers take on some of the most hazardous jobs without protections or guarantees, has hindered efforts to improve safety. Then, there’s COVID-19; the pandemic has decimated job opportunities in many places – leaving people who might otherwise be overworked or exposed to dangerous conditions struggling to find any work at all.

Image: World Economic Forum

Post-pandemic, experts say a few things could help the workforce recover: more training and skills development, focusing that training on specific occupations, and doing more to support private-sector unions.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • A recent UK government report suggested that racial and ethnic disparities in the country's labour market are waning. But according to this analysis, there’s been little change over the past quarter-century, and for Black, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi workers pay gaps with white counterparts have actually widened. (LSE)
  • Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013, working conditions in the country initially improved, according to this analysis – though there’s now even less likelihood for female workers in the industry to receive formal contracts. (VoxDev)
  • According to recent survey results, a majority of Americans say the decline in the share of US workers who are represented by unions has been “somewhat” or “very” bad for the country. (Pew Research Center)
  • Data published last year showed that Indian women spend nearly 10 times the hours spent by men on unpaid domestic and caregiving work. According to this analysis, it’s time to start paying these women. (India Development Review)
  • If 2020 was horrendous for healthcare workers, early 2021 was even worse, according to these two doctors in Liverpool. A typical weekend shift in January could involve anything from bewildered patients pulling off ventilator masks to having to intubate young adults. (The Conversation)
  • Turkey’s countrywide pandemic-related lockdown beginning on 29 April keeps as much as 70% of the workforce on the job and continuing to face health risks, according to this report, eliciting calls from unions for more exemptions for the nonessential. (Al Monitor)
  • Remote workers tend to buy or rent dwellings as much as 7% bigger on average than their office-bound peers, and spend more income on housing, according to recent research – which could have implications for hiring post-COVID-19. (Harvard Business School Working Knowledge)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Work, the Future of Economic Progress and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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