Five Years Ago, This Island Nation Lost an Entire Day

On this day in 2011, Samoa switched sides of the international date line for the second time, losing December 30 in the process. Here’s why

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Street in Apia, the capital of Samoa, when that country was still on American time. Archives New Zealand

Apple founder Steve Jobs once said that time is our most precious resource. Like most resources, managing time sure is complicated.

In a globalized world, time zones prove that location still matters.  But some argue that doing away with time zones altogether is the path to the future. Nowhere is the impact of the artificially constructed time standard more evident than in the history of Samoa, a South Pacific nation that has jumped the international date line for business reasons not once, but twice.    

On this day in 2011, Samoa switched sides of the international date line for the second time. That meant the whole island nation set its calendars forward in time by one day, missing December 30 entirely for that year. The reason for both jumps: trade, writes the BBC. Although Samoa’s specific circumstances are somewhat unusual, they’re far from unique in allowing business needs to literally transform their time.

Its location close to the international date line is the reason Samoans have been able to decide which “side” of the line to be on, although technically there’s no reason why any country needs to be in a specific time zone. The first time that the nation of fewer than 200,000 moved was in 1892, when “American traders persuaded it to shift from the western side to the eastern side of the international date line to facilitate business with the west coast of the United States, “ wrote Seth Moydan for The New York Times, the day before the big switch in 2011. The first shift, he wrote, took place on July 4, so the Samoans could celebrate their new trading partner’s most important national holiday twice.

Neighbouring New Zealand territory Tokelau also moved in 2011, Moydan wrote. The reason that the islands made the choice was, again, about trade. The prime minister of Samoa, Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi, told Moydan that the move would simplify doing business with their main trading partners Australia and New Zealand. Their economies, he said, are more linked to Australia, New Zealand and Asia than to the United States, but before their second time change they were 21 hours behind those countries.

Time zones are an important consideration for businesses: in fact, the business of railways was the reason they were first created, writes Matthew Yglesias for Vox. But they’ve never been a completely orderly, logical arrangement. “In the real world time zones follow what’s more of a political and economic logic than a geographical one,” he writes. Because of this arbitrariness, some, like Yglesias and academics Richard Conn Henry and Steve Hanke, think that time zones should be abolished in favor of a universal time.

When you consider how divorced clock time is from sun time in our daily lives, the idea doesn’t seem completely irrational. And conducting business around the globe would no doubt become simpler. “Setting the same time zone to a partner makes it easier to conduct trading since business hours match,” writes Jacob Simon for globalEDGE. Different time zones means businesses have to consider the constant mismatch, he writes, and that workers are affected.

In Samoa, five years after the jump, ties with Australia are tight. Australia’s foreign minister minister recently said that Australia is committed to helping the smaller nation grow its economy. Though the idea of universal time hasn’t really made it to the mainstream yet, the problems of a globalized workforce aren’t going away any time soon.

“Given the evolution of technology, we will continue to work from anywhere and across multiple time zones,” writes Lee Ajayi for Metropolis Magazine. If anything, he writes, the issue of distributed work will become bigger: estimates suggest that in the next decade more than 40 percent of the workforce “will work remotely or within the distributed work model.”

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