A history of Labour Day


5th March, 2020

Labour Day: A brief history of the ‘traditional’ work week

As an employer, public holidays and standardised working hours are symptomatic of a unionised past. But as we move towards more flexible arrangements, how should business owners seek to innovate?

We’re used to the notion of an eight-hour workday and a 38-hour work week, but things haven’t always functioned this way.

From the distant past of the Industrial Revolution to modern times, the way we think of how we divide personal and work time has changed dramatically.

While many employers might think of workplace laws as a symptom of unionisation and therefore an added cost to doing business, there are good reasons for preserving some separation between work and play, and as we look to the future, being aware of these trends will help business owners better position their processes for success.

As some states in Australia prepare to celebrate Labour Day on Monday 9 March, we look at where this public holiday stemmed from, and the evolution of the work week.

What is Labour Day?

It has a few different names and dates around Australia and internationally, but Labour Day celebrates the same thing everywhere.

It’s an annual event that commemorates the adoption of an eight-hour working day.

It acknowledges the introduction of set, limited working hours and remembers the people who succeeded in ensuring decent working conditions became the norm in most places.

The notion of an eight-hour workday developed from the idea of allowing people eight hours each for recreation, rest, and work.

History of Labour Day

Previously known as Eight Hours Day, and still called that in Tasmania, this celebratory day spans back over a century.

Up until the 1850s in Australia, workers typically had to work up to 12 or 14 hours each day, six or even seven days per week.

Sick of this arrangement, workers’ unions began heavily campaigning for fairer working conditions.

The push for change gathered steam partly due to the flood of migrants in Victoria who hoped to earn their riches on the goldfields.

Many of these people were British tradesmen, including James Stephens, a Welsh mason who was a well-known leader of the London stonemasons.

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Stephens moved to Melbourne in 1853 and, a couple of years later, helped lead the battle, with the Builders’ Union, to pressure employers and the government for a shorter working day (and other fairer conditions).

In 1856, the stonemasons had a big win in Victoria after putting down tools and marching to Parliament House.

They secured agreements for workers to have a 48-hour working week, with Saturday afternoons off.

This made a key difference for working-class families at that time and was a pivotal point in the political history of the state.

It also paved the way for other industries and states to fight for similar rights.

In the same year, New South Wales recognised new work regulations, while Queensland followed in 1858 and South Australia in 1873.

Tasmania made its condition updates in 1874.

After welcoming the new eight-hour day as a result of the changed work-week hours, the Victorian unionists held a victory march on 12 May 1856.

In New Zealand, it took longer, but an eight-hour working day and 48-hour working week became law in the country in 1899.

The eight-hour day idea built momentum in New Zealand due to Wellington carpenter Samuel Parnell.

Parnell refused to work more than eight hours each day in 1840.

With few people with his carpentry skills in the country, his employers agreed to let him work the shortened hours.

Although nationwide regulations didn’t come into effect until decades later, Parnell’s push for fair conditions helped promote the idea of fairer working conditions.

When is Labour Day celebrated?

As mentioned, each state and country has different dates for their Labour Day holidays.

The first area to celebrate it in Australia is Western Australia. There, Labour Day falls on Monday, 2 March.

In Victoria and Tasmania, Labour Day is Monday, 9 March, though Tasmania still calls it Eight Hours Day.

Queensland and the Northern Territory both celebrate the achievement of fairer working conditions on Monday, 4 May. However, it’s called Labour Day in Queensland and May Day in the Northern Territory.

New South Wales, South Australia, and the ACT all observe Labour Day later in the year, on Monday, 5 October.

New Zealand’s Labour Day is also in October, always on the fourth Monday of the month. This year, that date is 26 October.

The evolution of the working week

The working week has continued to evolve since the 19th century.

It was mainly workers in the building trades who got to enjoy eight-hour work days in the late 1800s in Australia.

It wasn’t until 1916 that the fairer working conditions became mandatory for everyone in Victoria and New South Wales with the passing of the Eight Hours Act.

Later, in 1948, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court approved a lower working week nationwide, introducing the 40-hour, five-day working conditions that were the norm for decades.

People argued for further reductions in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s, a 35-hour or 38-hour week became standard in most industries.

In New Zealand, the eight-hour day became the standard over time, but still regularly involved working six or seven days a week.

It wasn’t until 1936 when the more limited, 40-hour work week came into legislation with the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Act.

Today, New Zealand’s Minimum Wage Act 1983 sets out a maximum 40-hour, five-day work week as the norm for the country’s employment agreements.

Today’s work week

Employment agreements currently cap working weeks at between 35 and 40 hours in Australia and New Zealand, yet the trend is for us to work longer.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), for instance, the total hours of paid work in Australia has increased.

The average weekly hours worked by full-time workers has risen mainly because increasing numbers of people are working more hours without any additional pay.

Employers may ask personnel to work overtime hours, so long as these hours and the situation is “reasonable”.

This qualification is based on numerous factors, including risks to health and safety and usual work patterns in the industry.

Also, many workers now regularly do job-related tasks well beyond the traditional 9-5 work day.

The evolution of technology has had a big impact in this area.

With so many workers now having access to emails and other communications at all times of the day and often expected to respond to queries at all hours, there’s less real switching off.

Plus, with more people taking on second or even third jobs, often having “side hustle” self-employment work outside of full-time jobs, the trend for longer work hours is likely to continue.

In New Zealand, Stats NZ’s Survey of working life: 2018 report mentions that close to one in ten employed people have more than one job, and only five percent of these multiple-job holders work a 40-hour week.

We’ve also seen the increasing prevalence of part-time work in general.

Many people who didn’t have paid work in the past are now taking on part-time jobs.

More flexible working arrangements, with the ability for people to choose their work hours and to work from home or other environments, have also risen significantly, around the world.

The future of work

One of the employment trends that’s likely to gather momentum in the future is people working a shorter work week, with less time spent specifically “on the job”.

Many companies are trialling new setups where employees finish their work days earlier or work four days per week rather than five.

For example, Microsoft last year gave its thousands of employees in Japan – a country with some of the longest work days in the world – five Fridays off in a row.

They found productivity jumped by 40 percent as a result.

In New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian financial services firm trialled eight Fridays off in a row in 2018.

The company declared the experiment a great success, with 78 percent of employees feeling they were able to manage their work-life balance successfully.

The trial resulted in boosted productivity, revenues, and profits, and internet surfing dropped a whopping 35 percent during office hours.

Since then, Perpetual has adopted the measure permanently, with employees able to opt-in for the new setup.

The other school of thought on optimal work arrangements, though, is that the best option is to retain a five-day work week but cut working hours down to six rather than eight.

Proponents of this arrangement suggest that with everyone so distracted at work with emails, meetings, social media, and the like, reducing work time to six hours (or even less) means people concentrate and get more done than in eight unfocused hours.

Reducing work hours is said to lead to more deliberate, planned work time, and helps people to get into “flow” more effectively, leading to increased productivity and results.

Collins SBA is one Aussie company that went down this path.

The Tasmanian financial consulting firm moved to five-hour work days a few years ago.

The change proved beneficial for the company and its workers, and the business continues to stick to reduced hours.

But, Jonathan Elliot, managing director of the firm, notes that employees rarely work 25-hour weeks, as some days they need six or seven hours to get their work done.

Elliot acknowledged, in an interview with The Next Web, that in hindsight, he shouldn’t have called it the five-hour working day.

Rather, he said, “I would have gone with ‘flexible working hours’ instead…It does paint a more realistic picture of what it’s like to work at our firm.”

It’s not likely that all industries or all businesses will switch to shorter working days or weeks anytime soon, but it does appear that both entrepreneurs and self-employed workers are evaluating the most effective ways to get jobs done and enjoy better work-life balance.

As technology continues to blur the lines between work and personal life, employers need to think about what role they play in supporting their employees health and wellbeing, while also drawing down the required productivity they need to keep the lights on.

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