Today we mark International Labour Day to honour the men and women whose work makes our lives worth living. The celebration comes with a bonus of a public holiday, and so you are probably reading this from the comfort of your home.
We mark the day, not in praise of labour as purely physical exertion, but in tribute to humankind’s ability to transform our world with the work of our hands and minds.
This ability is uniquely human. There is perhaps no other creature on earth with it. Extra-terrestrials might have it, but we don’t know about that yet. The creatures that we know only have the instinct to survive, not to change their existence. We humans go one better. We have the same instinct for survival, but more significantly the capacity to fashion our lives as we desire and continually take them to a higher plane.
And so on Labour Day we celebrate that ability to be creative and reorder the world in the image of our dreams.
The most advanced societies in the world today are those that have mastered that ability and used it to propel themselves to another level. They are the most innovative and have fused labour and intellect so well that today it is difficult to distinguish between workers, inventors and owners of industry in the traditional sense. In many cases they are one and the same.
That is certainly the case today in the information age. The workers are the writers of code, designers of various hard and software and other machines. But they are also the inventors and owners of the means of making these things.
In this sense modern industrial relations have subverted the traditional concept of labour and given it new meaning, and we might have to start looking at it differently. Of course, this subversion has always been the result of the different revolutions the world has seen – from the industrial to the digital revolution and others that are just setting in.
Every age is associated with a particular type of worker. The industrial age had machine operators, factory hands, miners of coal and other industrial minerals, smiths of every kind and motley artisans. Indeed these were once the face of labour and ruled the world. On a day like this, they marched in proud declaration of the value of their work. Other times they did so to show their might or in defiance of those that sought to exploit them more.
Even in politics, organised labour was once a strong force. In Britain they were very powerful until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (the Iron Lady) brought them to heel when she broke the power of the Miners Union in the early 1980s. In the Labour Party they were the kingmakers until Tony Blair came along and steered the party away from the control of the trade unions.
In the colonies, labour unions played an important role in decolonisation, but post-independence governments checked their power or co-opted them into formal political organisation and effectively silenced them.
Here in Rwanda, there was a time when the official line on labour was to celebrate tilling the land as the only natural and worthwhile productive activity. The rest, as the leaders of the day convinced Rwandans, was mere chance. The effect of this on the collective psyche of the people was disastrous. It meant that aspiring to any work that was different from tilling the land was a betrayal of the natural order of things. It kept their creative, innovative potential in check. As a result we lagged behind.
Of course working the land is still a valuable activity. That’s how we get our food. But we do not romanticise it as the sacred inheritance of citizens of this country. We have moved to another level in keeping with the practice of the age where labour is not so much about the heavy lifting jobs on the factory shop floor or the farm. It is increasingly more knowledge-based.
The leadership of this country recognised that for Rwanda to reach an advanced economic status, we must create another cadre of workers and innovators, steeped in the intricacies of the digital age. After all, it is those nations that can anticipate and harness the power unleashed by industrial subversion that occupy the front seat. If we want to be among them we have to do the same.
Today’s Labour Day celebrations must recognise this new worker-inventor-owner type, for it is the path to the future and helps us position ourselves to take full advantage of oncoming revolutions.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.