This is a weekend of history. It's Labour Weekend. It would be interesting to know how many people under the age of about 45 know the origin of Labour Day.
Labour Day is a celebration of the struggle to achieve limits on the working week. The idea of having rules and laws about how many hours your employer could make you work was a radical idea in the mid-1800s.
New Zealand played a leading role in setting off the trend worldwide of workers asserting their right to have some control over their working day.
The year was 1840. It wasn't just the year of the Treaty of Waitangi. In Petone in that year, Samuel Parnell, a recently arrived carpenter from London, refused to work more than eight hours a day. He explained that of the 24 hours in a day "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".
As a carpenter in a new colony his skills were needed and his obstinacy paid off.
He had no shortage of work offers, but he stuck to his principle of working reasonable hours so he could have a decent life.
Celebrating the eight-hour day was also a radical idea. By 1890, the custom was established in many centres and when, in that year, government workers arranged to attend celebrations on the day, the government gave them the day off, and the idea of a public holiday was born.
It has since come to mean more. And in an age when the very idea of rights in the workplace seems to be increasingly under threat, it is even more important that we stop to reflect on where things are today.
The fight for the right to exert some control over the hours you work soon turned into a fight to have a say on many things. Having a say on what you get paid was pretty obvious - and then things like safety, the need for decent breaks and job protection for times of sickness.
Even the idea of continuous employment - returning to the same workplace day after day - as opposed to the boss deciding whether to have you back from one day to the next. This is the issue - the fight against casualised work - that galvanised the nation's port workers from the 19th century. How shameful they should be in the same fight yet again at Auckland earlier this year.
It will be obvious that one of the developments over time was that individuals couldn't make these changes by themselves, so joined their workmates to make change and protect their interests. And so, unions were born.
My fear is that for a growing number of the working population the idea that you are entitled to stand up to unfair practices at work, to challenge your employer when they want to change your working conditions, to resist unjust and unwelcome conduct by managers, is seen as threatening to future employment.
This is the culture that has been created over the past 20 years.
It's often sheeted home to unions. "Unions have got weaker", some cry. While that's undeniably true, it has to be remembered unions are what their members are.
If you don't work together to deal with your employer, you can hardly blame unions for that. Equally, it's not surprising many workers don't join unions when you learn how some employers act as if the choice of whether you join a union is the employer's.
At a time of recession, it's easy to be cowed by the rhetoric that says any trouble at work will lead to job losses. Employers and their political masters, like this Government, play on the sense of job insecurity times like the present create.
Possibly this explains why on the eve of this Labour Weekend the Government introduced a bill to Parliament reducing the minimum wage for teenagers to $10.80, a law which will also allow apprentices over the age of 20 to be paid less.
Maybe this weekend we might give some thought to the importance of decent standards and conditions in the workplace, and think about how we get them and our responsibility, to ourselves and to others, to be ever-vigilant of them.
While on the subject of being thoughtful, it seems that the "Right" are having problems in the remembering department. First it was the member for Remuera, and donations he received for his Auckland mayoralty campaign, and now the prime minister is suffering from amnesia-like symptoms with his recollection of when he was made aware by his security department of Dotcom surveillance.
That forgetfulness is not confined solely to politicians. Gordon to my right last week commented on the sale of New Zealand Railways and how it was "my lot" who sold it off. There is no doubt that Richard Prebble commenced that sale process prior to 1990, but it was under Jim Bolger's stewardship that it was sold in 1993 to Wisconsin Central and others including merchant bankers Fay, Richwhite and Co for the sum of $328 million.
Lest we forget.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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