Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Matters of Interest

Eight-Hour Working Day

The Hon. T.T. NGO (15:23): Last Friday, on 22 September, I attended the 150-year anniversary celebration of the eight-hour working day, organised by SA Unions. I want to speak about the significant change that was won for the South Australian working people in 1873. Before 1873, employment was unregulated and workers lived day by day, hoping to pick up a day's work as they lined up every morning at the wharves or factory gates. In some ways, you could compare this to today's version of gig economy workers, who also live day by day, with many of these workers surviving on inconsistent incomes and working hours.

In the mid-1800s, those who had steady work often did 14 or 16-hour days, six to seven days a week. Although these working hours may have become more commonplace for today's workforce, workers are better paid and have much better working conditions than 150 years ago.

It was in South Australia that the movement for an eight-hour day gained momentum, following a stonemasons' strike in Victoria in 1856. Melbourne was growing at a startling rate due to the gold rush that brought an influx of hopeful migrants to the city, and building tradesmen were working extremely long hours in harsh conditions to keep up with the demand for new buildings.

This action in Victoria inspired similar movements in other parts of the country, resulting in the most successful campaign in South Australia. On 21 April 1856, the Adelaide eight hours committee organised a workers' demonstration to demand an eight-hour work day. This was actually one of the world's first organised labour marches, which led to the success of this movement here in our state and had a lasting impact on improved working conditions. The major achievement for South Australian trade unions was winning the eight-hour work day in 1873.

In Australia, as we know, Labour Day is celebrated through various events, parades and activities that showcase the achievements of workers and trade unions while fostering a sense of community. South Australia has always led the nation when it comes to social justice and social equality. We can stand proud knowing that, in 1894, South Australia was the first place in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women, including Aboriginal women.

Ironically, after attending this important anniversary celebration for workers, we are now in a position in which we must fight to defend this eight hours a day, as it is being eroded. Today's long working hours are often seen as a badge of honour and dedication, which can discourage sticking to an eight-hour day. Legislative changes have also had some effect, by allowing for longer working hours and flexible working days.

Then there is a decline in union influence, making it more challenging for workers to negotiate and protect their rights. More workers have moved into freelance work with the rise in the gig economy. All of this has blurred the line between work and personal life, and clearly highlights the need for ongoing debate about work-life balance.

Labour Day remains an integral part of Australian culture and, as I have said, we must now fight to defend it to make sure all it stands for is not lost. To conclude, I want to thank SA Unions and all affiliate unions for recognising the past struggles of Australian workers and supporting workers with the new struggles they face that come with the modern working world.