By the early 20th century, Australia had some of the best working conditions in the world.
After settlement in Australia, there was little to no protection for workers. With most of the labour done by convicts, working conditions were less than ideal, and they were expected to work from sunrise until sunset. While they were allowed half a day off on Saturday and a full day off on Sunday, the convicts were required to attend church. It wasn’t until 1791 that the convicts went on strike to receive daily rations instead of weekly rations.
The British Masters and Servants Act, and later the New South Wales Masters and Servants Act, governed that employees could be severely punished for various workplace incidents, including absence without approved leave and inattention to duty. Most penalties typically included wage deduction or imprisonment, while others included lashings and solitary confinement.
As the colony began to expand throughout the early 1800s, new businesses – many of them shops – also became more common. The arrival of streetlights in 1841 saw businesses staying open much later, and many employees were expected to work 14-hour days. In response to this, the Early Closing Movement was formed in 1844, and was petitioning to reduce the long days to 12 hours instead.
The first Australian unions were formed between 1830 and 1833, consisting of skilled workers, such as shipwrights, cabinet-makers and printers. They faced severe opposition from the government and weren’t in much of an influential position to campaign for improved work conditions until the 1850s, when the discovery of gold saw many workers move toward the goldfields.
One of the unions, the Operative Masons’ Society, is credited with starting the eight-hour movement in Australia back in 1853 in Melbourne. They were inspired by Robert Owens, a Scottish socialist who first proposed the eight-hour work day back in 1817, and as such the Operative Masons’ Society developed its own arguments to push for the reduced working hours. It claimed that Australia’s harsh climate (when compared to Britain) essentially demanded fewer hours for workers to recover after long days in the sun. It also claimed that labourers should have time in the day to educate themselves, and that workers would become better husbands, fathers and citizens if they had more time to enjoy leisure.
A public meeting was called by workers at the Queen’s Theatre on 26 March 1856, and the workers firmly stated their desires for better working conditions. Negotiations between the union and building companies were unsuccessful; and on 21 April, stonemasons who had been constructing the law faculty buildings at the University of Melbourne put down their tools and walked off the job. Joined by stonemasons from other sites, negotiations between the government and employers would take months to come to an agreement. Finally, stonemasons were granted an eight-hour day but with their same wage for 10 hours of work.
Despite this, only a small handful of workers – primarily in building trades – were granted an eight-hour work day. Meanwhile, other industries, and women and children, continued to work longer for less pay.
In 1916, the Victorian and New South Wales governments passed the Eight Hours Act, and in January 1948 the Commonwealth Arbitration Court approved all Australians to work a 40-hour, five-day working week.