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Here’s Why We Celebrate Labour Day

Monday was a holiday in Victoria and Tasmania, thanks to some Gold Rush era tradesmen who decided they'd work no more than eight hours a day. The 9 – 5 workday is now an international standard, and it started in Australia.

Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856. Image via.

Chances are, if you were in Tasmania or Victoria, you were reading this in your PJs, wasting time on Instagram and Netflix because it was Labour Day.

New South Wales, South Australia, and the ACT celebrate Labour Day in October. Western Australia had the day last week. The Northern Territory will celebrate it in May. Each state celebrates at a different time, but the sentiment is the same.

The eight-hour workday.


In the early 1880s people just worked until their employers said they could stop. Governments at the time had no directive over working conditions, so labourers worked at the discretion of their employers. And as most 19th century jobs didn't involve sitting at a computer and alt-tabbing between Word and Facebook all day, those poor bastards really worked. Up to 12 hours of physical labour daily affected employee's health, and some felt it had to change.

On 18 August 1855, stonemasons in Sydney presented their employers with an ultimatum: they had six months to implement an eight hour work day—meaning eight hours for work, eight for recreation, and eight for sleep—or work would stop. The masons had circumstance on their side: thanks to the gold rush, the population was increasing rapidly and much of the country was in a building boom. As a result, Sydney had a shortage of skilled workers. By March 1856, they'd won an eight-hour work day, but there was a cost: the reduction in work time came with a reduction in pay.

One month later, stonemasons at the University of Melbourne followed suit. On 21 April they put down their tools and took off towards Parliament House. They were joined by other builders, and the crowd converged at the seat of the state government to demand their 60 hour work week be reduced to 48.

Amazingly, the government agreed and workers who were employed on government projects were able to work eight hours per day, and with no loss of pay.


This was a world first.

There had been pushes to instate the eight-hour standard in the past. Earlier that century, the Welsh reformer Robert Owen had coined the slogan "Eight hours' labour, eight hours' recreation, eight hours' rest". At the time, it was a pipe dream. He said that phrase in 1817, but it took until 1847 for British women and children alone to be granted a maximum 10-hour work day. In 1818, French workers won the 12-hour workday. Less than a decade later, it was stonemasons who won the coveted eight-hour day.

The most extraordinary part of this struggle was how long it took for this idea to take hold.

It wasn't until 1916 that the Victoria Eight Hours Act was passed, granting a maximum eight-hour work day to everyone in the state. By the 1920s, the legislation had been implemented across the country.

Around the world, other workers tried to follow Australia's example. On 1 May 1886, over 200 000 American workers went on strike to demand an eight-hour work day. This protest did not go nearly as smoothly as the one in Melbourne had gone a whole 40 years earlier. In Chicago, one of the country's biggest industrial towns of the time, there were violent clashes between protestors and authorities. Six workers from the McCormack Harvester Company were killed by police.

It wasn't until 1937, over 50 years later, that the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. Part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the act set the maximum work week as 40 hours, with provisions for overtime.

So many people have fought so hard for rights that we now take for granted, and so many of them were here at home. We were inspired by the British and by the French, but Australian workers were the ones who set the precedent for the world.

Today many of us will celebrate the establishment of the eight-hour workday with Netflix and without pants. Another right we can be grateful for.

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