The fourth Monday in October is the first public holiday to break the holiday drought that begins after the Queen’s Birthday in June. It (supposedly) marks a return to warmer weather and is, as with all statutory holidays, a welcome break for the work-weary.

While the name, Labour Day, implies some vague association with trades unions and the labour movement, the original reason for the holiday is unknown to many in present day, overworked, New Zealand.

The Early Struggle

Labour Day, in fact, commemorates the struggle for an eight hour working day, a condition which, while widely accepted and applied, is still not legally enshrined in New Zealand.

Though there are a number of contenders for the title, it is generally agreed that the eight hour working day in New Zealand found its champion in Samuel Parnell, an English carpenter who immigrated to Port Nicholson (now Wellington) in 1840.

Parnell’s Stand

On arrival in New Zealand, Parnell was asked to build a store for shipping agent George Hunter. Parnell who, while living and working in London, had been exposed to the prevailing international concern with worker’s rights, agreed to do so, but only on the condition that he not work more than eight hours a day. Though his employer protested, the shortage of skilled tradesmen in the new colony allowed Parnell to make good on his demand.

Parnell organised other carpenters in the town and in October 1840 a workers’ meeting on Lambton Quay resolved a motion to adopt an eight hour working day (any worker who dissented was to be ducked in the harbour!).

The First Labour Day

Though adoption of an eight hour working day spread to other centres of population and other trades it was by no means universally accepted and was not a legal right. In fact, as the availability of skilled workers increased due to immigration, the power of employers to force longer hours was strengthened.

The first Labour Day was celebrated on 28th October 1890. This date marked the first anniversary of the establishment of the Maritime Council, an organization of transport and mining unions, and was also, loosely, the 50th anniversary of Parnell’s stand on the eight hour working day. As such, the parades held to celebrate Labour Day had the dual purpose of raising the profile of the union movement and pressing for the wider adoption of fair working hours.

The Public Holiday

Towards the end of the 1800s there was increasing pressure from unionists on government to legislate an eight hour day for all workers. The government, concerned about antagonising the business community, resisted. Instead, beginning in 1900, they made Labour Day a statutory public holiday.

The holiday initially fell on each second Wednesday of October, but was changed in 1910 to each fourth Monday in that month.

A Disturbing Trend

And so, through the principles, energy and determination of Samuel Parnell and other humanitarian thinkers almost 170 years ago, we have the holiday that is enjoyed nationally today.

It is a sobering thought, though, that despite their efforts and various subsequent legislation aimed at strengthening the application of an eight hour working day, working hours in New Zealand have generally increased, that we now, on average, work longer hours than any country except Japan and Korea, and that we are still not universally entitled to an eight hour working day by right of law.

Labour Day and New Zealand’s Working Hours, 4.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

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