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Labour Day — more than just a long weekend?

Concordia PhD student Piyusha Chatterjee explains why this holiday is still relevant
September 2, 2016
By J. Latimer

Piyusha Chatterjee: “The eight-hour workday didn’t come easily.” A Labour Day parade in Toronto, c. 1900. | Photo via Wikipedia A Labour Day parade in Toronto, c. 1900. | Photo via Wikipedia

Since 1894, Canadians have celebrated Labour Day with a mix of glee and ennui. The final long weekend before fall, the holiday is also a reminder that it’s time to get back to work.

But in 2016, is Labour Day still relevant to today’s workforce?

Piyusha Chatterjee, a PhD student in Concordia’s Individualized Program (INDI), believes it is as important as ever.

“Things we take for granted now, like the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek, didn’t come easily. People went to jail, people died,” she says

In the spring of 1872, a major strike took place in Toronto, led by print workers who were fighting for a nine-hour work day. At the time, it was still illegal to strike or form unions in Canada.

Workers marched in early September of that year to protest arrests made during the strikes, prompting the government to decriminalize unions. Activists continued to mark that day with marches and parades in the fight towards shorter work weeks and other labour rights. It wasn't until 1894 that the federal government declared Labour Day a national holiday.

Deindustrialization isn’t the end of labour

Chatterjee is working on an oral history of the industrial city of Durgapur, India, for her doctoral thesis. “I am hoping to record the lived experiences of people in a city that was built from scratch as part of a plan to industrialize and modernize India,” she says.

“I am interested in labour both inside and outside the factory walls. Hence my interest in women's labour in an industrial city.”

She points out that in India, and much of the developing world over the last few decades, the traditional definition of labour has changed. Over the last century, it has expanded from factory work to include tasks undertaken by people in the service sector and the knowledge economy — strongholds of the deindustrialized middle class.

“Workers’ rights need to take into account all of these things, plus the global economy and the work of women. Now there are legal protections in place, of course, but who do they benefit? Do they do enough to protect contract workers, freelancers, caregivers — who are predominantly women — and surrogate mothers?”

Chatterjee passes along a pertinent observation from her advisor, Steven High, professor in the Department of History and co-director of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

“As Professor High says, deindustrialization doesn’t mean we don’t need production anymore. It means it has moved to other parts of the world. Workers’ rights need to spread accordingly, and Labour Day is a great reminder of that.”

Learn more about the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.


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