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Labouring away in the kitchen and beyond — or trying not to



Labour Day, just passed, is celebrated in just about every country other than Canada on May 1, variously as International Workers’ Day or May Day. The latter conflates confusingly into the more ancient, traditional May Day, originally a Roman festival that celebrated the beginning of summer and Flora, the goddess of fruits and flowers.

The idea of a Labour Day, however it’s called, was to celebrate the advancements made by the labour movement worldwide. International Workers’ Day originally marked the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago when workers threw a bomb at police, who in turn fired into striking workers — killing who knows how many — supporting the eight-hour workday proclaimed on May 1, 1886 in the U.S.

But a seven-day workweek it remained; a workweek of six days was only common after World War I. In Victorian England, a workweek meant 70 hours, or maybe 84 if you were a shopkeeper.

In our hurried dot-com world, where holidays and the ensuing frenzy to “take care of everything” before vacation and after means days off are often more trouble than they’re worth, we can barely picture what would drive people to strike, let alone lay down their lives, in support of an eight-hour work day. And while we officially don’t have to work like our ancestors of Victorian times, it sometimes feels like we must.

Today, most of us just complain and put up with the pace of the compressed and harried life that resumes after the first Monday of September, as workers go back to work and kids go back to school. It makes our Canadian Labour Day more of a bittersweet demarcation, one involving the last long weekend of summer and a grudging reminder that “labour” is hovering in the wings, anxious to upstage the sweet, slow days of summer.

I was curious to read in Margaret Visser’s classic, The Way We Are , that we Canadians have it pretty bad in terms of work/play ratios. By Visser’s account, the hunter-gather in Peruvian rainforests puts in three to four hours a day of labour to sustain him/herself. In fourth century Rome, workers were given 175 days off each year, or about half the time. In today’s France, employers must give workers no less than six weeks of paid vacation time each year, this in addition to 11 public holidays, although only one is paid — May Day.

While the number of minimum paid holidays varies from province to province, a recent survey by the Canadian Labour Congress, bless their collective heart, discovered that in the context of 21 OECD nations, we Canucks definitely get the short end of the vacation stick. Officially, only 10 statutory holidays and 10 paid vacation days each year — brother! Or perhaps the exhortation should be, strike!

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