Every year, 1 May serves as both a marker of progress and a stark reminder of the lingering challenges in the labour market. Originally born from the late 1800s push for workers’ rights, Workers’ Day has evolved into a complex symbol of both triumph and ongoing struggle, particularly in South Africa. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, the day has not only commemorated the fight for fair employment but also honoured the critical role that labour unions and the Communist Party played in dismantling Apartheid.

However, today’s reality paints a different picture, especially for the youth. In a country where over half of the young population faces unemployment, May Day’s historical victories are overshadowed by the stark daily survival challenges exacerbated by soaring living costs.

Thabo, a 22-year-old from Johannesburg, articulates the disconnect: “We recognize the day for its history, sure, but how are we supposed to celebrate when we’re just trying to make ends meet? It feels more like a reminder of what hasn’t changed.”
This sentiment is echoed across generations, where the promise of labour rights meets the harsh economic reality of job scarcity and underemployment. The day has transformed from a celebration of workers’ victories to a platform for voicing the frustrations of a struggling workforce.

Ayanda, a young professional from Durban, adds, “My parents’ generation fought for the right to work without discrimination, yet here we are, battling unemployment and inequality. Where is the victory in that?”

Globally, as Gen Xers and millennials navigate an ever-changing job landscape marked by gig economies and freelance work, the definition of ‘worker’ broadens, encompassing a wider range of employment types than ever before. This shift prompts a re-evaluation of what Workers’ Day means today.

Harvey, 24 from England reflects on the global perspective: “In my country, as in many others, May Day used to symbolize job security and workers’ rights. Now, it’s about surviving in a gig economy, fighting for recognition and decent pay.”

Back in South Africa, the memory of labour’s role in the anti-Apartheid movement adds a layer of solemnity to the day. Sipho, a Cape Town-based freelancer, notes, “Our history is rich with stories of resistance, with labour movements at the forefront. Today, we fight not with placards and strikes, but through our demand for a place in this new job market.”

Adding to the complexity is the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace, which many young people see as a new ‘competitor’ for jobs. Lerato, an IT graduate in Pretoria, comments, “AI is streamlining processes, sure, but at what cost? It’s another form of worker, one that doesn’t tire or demand rights, potentially displacing many of us who are already struggling to find stable jobs.”

Moreover, the battle for a living wage versus merely a minimum wage continues to be a hot topic among young South Africans. Despite acquiring degrees and diplomas, many find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs that barely cover living expenses, let alone allow for savings or economic mobility.

Nokuthula, a recent university graduate in Cape Town, expresses her frustration: “Even with a degree, many of us are earning just the minimum wage, which isn’t enough to live on in the city. The concept of a ‘living wage’ seems like a distant dream.”

How can we channel the spirit of May Day to advocate for change in a world where the battle for economic survival is real and pressing? How will we carry forward the legacy of those who fought before us, and how will we adapt to the new realities of a workforce increasingly shaped by technology?