Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Patria-Kaye Aarons | We've been doing Labour Day wrong

Published:Wednesday | May 18, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Truth is, even though next Monday is Labour Day, for the entire 24 hours, many won't lift a finger.

In Jamaica, the intention is for groups to get together and labour on projects that beautify their homes, civic locations and community spaces. However, over time, many have opted to do as little labouring as possible on May 23, and have chosen instead to do the least labour-intensive activity that comes to mind: sleep.

Labour Day projects especially suffer when the day falls so close to Saturday and Sunday. Many simply take the long weekend to party their problems away, run off to the country, or hibernate.

The complaint of HR and marketing executives who organise clean-up days is that they are finding it more and more difficult to get staff members to come out and work on Labour Day. People see it first and foremost as a holiday, and are hard-pressed to give up any one of the 10 we celebrate each year.

As it approached, my mind wondered about the origins of Labour Day, and I did a little digging. Turns out Labour Day was originally intended as a day of rest. Who knew?

It's genesis began in North America out of the Industrial Revolution era. A union-driven activity, workers opted for one day out of every year to forfeit their pay and march in protest against long work hours and low wages. It soon evolved into a time filled with picnics, concerts and speeches rallying for a day structured around eight hours for labour, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.

Not until 1894 did the workers get their wish, and the day became an official national holiday on the US calendar. In 1938, Jamaica caught the fever.

Never quite as passive as our US neighbours, we took a more active approach. Championed by St William Grant, islandwide strikes and riots broke out, with workers demanding better wages and working conditions. In 1961, the first Jamaican Labour Day was celebrated - as a day of marches, and rest.




Credit a charismatic Michael Manley in 1972 for changing the narrative of Labour Day from a day of rest to a day of work. What a turnaround! Manley, on Labour Day, encouraged not only work, but free work. In his eloquence, he coined it as "national voluntary labour". And leading by example, on that first Labour Day, he and his team cleaned up the Palisadoes strip. The rest is history (see what I just did there?).

As tired as we all may be, and as much as we all feel we deserve the break, I say let's this year observe the Manley interpretation of Labour Day.

There are yards in every community that need some TLC. Unkempt and bushy. Perhaps a shut-in lives there. Perhaps just a really messy neighbour. Whatever the reason for the untidiness, it affects your own comfort at home. It's a breeding ground for mosquitoes, a security risk with many hiding places, or just plain and straight, an eyesore. It's a worthwhile activity to get together with neighbours and clean it up. Many hands do make work light, and you can clean it up in no time if you approach it collectively.

Jamaica has a real garbage problem, and we are the ones who create it. If only out of pride, we should take some time to clean up the mess we have made. Besides, we all function better in a clean environment. And when our surroundings are clean, we are happier. Let's make home that much happier.

More than anything else, I think it is a good opportunity for neighbours to get to know each other. Too often have I heard of people who don't even know the names of the people they live beside. The importance of that person in your life can stem from something as small as wanting to borrow sugar to something as major as getting you to the hospital. Working on a Labour Day project together is a great way to get to know that person who may one day save your life.

The intention of Labour Day may originally have been for rest, but there is far too much work to be done. Let's actually labour on Labour Day, even for a little bit.

- Patria-Kaye Aarons is a television presenter and confectioner. Email feedback to and, or tweet @findpatria.