May Day (1 May) means many things to many people but one thing remains true: we owe a lot to tea for fuelling labour.
There’s a beautiful collision that happens within the concept of ‘May Day’. For a large swathe of Europe, it’s a holiday that marks the beginning of summer with dancing and flowers and general bonhomie. For many others, it’s International Workers’ Day, which marks historic gains made by the labour movement, including the eight-hour workday.
The link between tea and labour cannot be understated. There are two major factors that make tea very much a workers’ drink, a democratisation that transforms its early leanings as a drink for the upper class. The first is that the popularity of tea directly contributed to the wellbeing of workers who moved from the country to the city during England’s Industrial Revolution. By ‘wellbeing’ I mean ‘kept them alive’. Let me explain.
The rising density of cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham posed a problem at a time when public sanitation was barely adequate for even their original inhabitants. However, the corresponding popularity of tea – which required boiling water – meant that drinking tea reduced the consumption of unclean water.
The second factor was a switch from ale as the factory drink of choice to tea. Ale of about 0.8% alcohol had been the go-to drink to counter waterborne diseases, alcohol being an anti-microbial substance, but had the downside of being a depressant. Tea, on the other hand, also had anti-microbial properties thanks to the boiling of the water but was a stimulant.
And it turned out that giving workers a tea break during their long shifts was good for productivity. “Progressive employers in the first factories of the Industrial Revolution offered their workers a tea break as a glimpse of light in the numbing drudgery of their 14-hour work days,” wrote Victor Mair and Erling Hoh in The True History of Tea (2009).
Evidence of the positive outcomes of a tea break was so strong that in 1928 the UK’s Industrial Fatigue Board recommended it should be compulsory to offer one for a day’s employment. This foundation paved the way for tea ladies (and chaiwallahs) in offices until about the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher waged a war against the tea break because she saw it as slacking off and it also gave unionists a chance to meet. From the 1980s onwards, in England as well as Australia, tea ladies became scarce.
Today we’re more likely to make our own tea at work, perhaps asking our colleagues if they’d like a cuppa too, but the science still stands: tea breaks are good for you. So this May Day – and every other work day – celebrate with a tea break.
(There is, of course, one other meaning for May Day: the distress call ‘mayday’ from the French m’aidez, meaning 'help me'. It’s the sound of my bank account when May rolls around as it’s the perfect time to buy new-harvest spring tea from northern hemisphere producers.)
Enjoying a workplace tea break? Snap a pic and share it on social media with the tag #myofficeteabreak
Labour Day in Australia is celebrated with a public holiday that differs by state: first Monday in March for Western Australia; second Monday in March for Tasmania and Victoria; first Monday in May for Queensland and NT; and first Monday in October for ACT, NSW and South Australia.