History of Labour Day

Updated: Apr 26

On Saturday the 1st of May 2021, we will be celebrating Labour Day here in Hong Kong. Schools and (many) businesses will be closed and people will be free to spend the day with their loved ones, relaxing and enjoying their time off.

Everybody loves a public holiday, but it’s important to acknowledge why these important dates are being observed, so that we can understand the history, traditions and reasons behind them.

As we prepare our students for their great foray into the working world, it’s important for them understand how the actions of those before them, contribute to their lives today. This is why we value learning about the ‘why’ behind holidays like Labour Day.


The History

Labour Day is celebrated all over the world but it originated in Chicago USA, after an important event known as the 'Haymarket Affair'.

On May 3rd 1988, there was an altercation between workers and the police during a strike at McCormick Reaper Works. One worker was killed by the police while several others were wounded. According to History.com, August Spies, a German immigrant had been giving a speech to striking workers not far from the McCormick Reaper Works factory, and had seen the police open fire on the workers. He was extremely angry and immediately wrote a leaflet to share his sentiments and encourage workers to protest the police brutality. Word spread and an outdoor rally was planned at Haymarket Square for the following day.

The next day, May 4th 1886, frustrated by the events of the previous day and their current conditions, Chicago workers gathered to strike and raise awareness around the rights of workers - especially their rights to an eight-hour work day. At the time, some workers were being forced to work 10 – 12 hours per day, sometimes even more.

What began as a peaceful rally in support of workers, turned into a devastating tragedy. As the police tried to break up the strike, tensions began to mount. A man (who remains unknown), threw a dynamite bomb at the police. The bomb blasted along with the gunfire that followed, "resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded." – Wikipedia.com. Eight radical labour activists were convicted in connection with the bombing, despite the fact that there was not enough evidence to support their convictions.

While the events of the day were viewed as a setback for the organised labour movement in America, the convicted men were held up as martyrs by many. The Haymarket Affair became a symbol for countries around the world, representing the struggle for the rights of workers.

Labour Day in Hong Kong

We observe Labour Day in Hong Kong as a way to pay respect to the efforts, struggles and victories of the ordinary workers who fought for their rights. Although many countries observe Labour Day on different dates, in Hong Kong, we celebrate this day on May 1st. Even today, Labour Day in Hong Kong is a day for different labour unions, as well as other workers’ organisations to come together. United, they organise parades to campaign for the rights of the workers in the city. Often, they will gather at Victoria Park and march to the government offices. These marches bring awareness to the government and media about any unfair wages or poor working conditions.

Most industries and corporate institutions in Hong Kong follow strict guidelines to ensure their workers are treated with fairness, dignity and respect. Despite the positive reformation of the work force, Labour Day can still be enjoyed as a day for hard working individuals to rest from their work, and celebrate time with their friends and families. Balance is an important part of being an effective worker, and without rest and time to unwind, no one would be able to give their best to their work. This is another important concept that Labour Day serves to reinforce.

We teach our students about the origin of holidays like these, to help them understand how the actions of those before us, serve to dramatically improve our circumstances today. It’s important for every generation to view themselves as part of the story that makes up humanity. We should always strive to improve the narrative and support our fellow human beings in whatever ways we can.

The workers of 1988 did just that when they fought for their rights, and the rights of millions of workers to come – including future work forces – our students.


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