Published: 09 March 2017
Author: Creon Coolahan

Labour Day celebrates historic fight for work life balance

When we celebrate Labour Day let's spare a thought for our ancestors, who during the 1800's were estimated to be working up to twice as many hours.

As a legal firm that prides itself on representing hard working Australians and unions, we celebrate the rights of workers on this day.

The history of Labour Day dates back to the mid 1800s, when Australians united to ensure decent and fair working conditions and in protest of working up to 12 hours a day six days a week.

On 21 April 1856, stonemasons at the University of Melbourne marched to Parliament House to push for an eight-hour working day. They sought an agreement with employers for a 48-hour week, which was eventually reached, and Australian workers welcomed the new eight-hour day.

On 12 May, the first of an annual victory march was held and later that year the new work regulations were recognised in New South Wales, followed by Queensland in 1858, South Australia in 1873 and Tasmania in 1874. In 1879 the Victorian Government declared a paid public holiday to celebrate the labour movement’s successful push for an eight-hour day.

This movement was also reflected in global trends.

  • In 1830, a working week in manufacturing in the USA was 69 hours and this fell to 61 hours by 1880.
  • In 1847, the UK set a law to limit the working day to 10 hours, which also applied to women and children.
  • In 1914, the newly founded Ford Motor Company in Detroit, USA cut hours to eight in its factories.

How does our working week fare with other countries?

While our Australian predecessors paved the way for good working conditions, international comparisons provide some interesting perspectives. A 2015 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks Australia as 12th in the world for a low hour work week with the lowest working weeks reported in Germany followed by the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and France.

There is growing evidence amongst economists that long working hours do not necessarily translate into increased productivity. Data from the OECD in 2015 ranks Mexico as the least productive of 38 countries, while having the world's longest average working week at 41.2 hours (including full-time and part-time workers).

At the other end of the spectrum, Luxembourg is reported as the most productive country, and has an average work week of just 29 hours. Most recently, a recent new law in France has barred work emails after hours, which also suggests long hours don’t translate into productivity.

What are current work trends?

  • Australians on average work 32 hours per week, while the Dutch work 27 hours a week.
  • Hours worked by the average Australian worker are falling, as part-time work becomes more common.
  • Australians are considered resilient and adaptable. In the 2008 global financial crisis Australians and employers agreed to reduce working hours, which meant fewer people, lost their jobs and unemployment did not rise greatly.

Are we moving backwards in labour conditions?

There are growing concerns that a recent decision by the Fair Work Commission cutting Sunday penalty rates in the near future has the potential to further erode the work life balance for ordinary working Australians by not placing an appropriate value upon work performed during the weekend.

If Sunday work is to become a de facto working day let’s hope that we don’t regress to the 1800's when many employees were expected to work a six-day week. Coupling the loss of penalty rates for many workers with the increasing prevalence of casual work has the potential to undermine the very social conditions and values that were wrought upon the creation and subsequent yearly observance of Labour Day.

In pursuit of work life balance

So, this Labour Day spare some time for renowned Australian writer, Henry Lawson, and his poem titled ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’. It’s about the largest May Day/Labour Day demonstrations in Queensland in 1891 and the movement for an eight-hour day, and shows just how far we have come in the pursuits of work life balance.

So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
O' those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!

Categories Employment, Fair Work, Family

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