The Day of the Eight-Hour Day

The Eight-Hour Day in Australia

Map of Country

Figure 1: Map of Australia and its surroundings



            The Eight-Hour Day is a celebration founded in southern Australia which the workers fought and succeeded in changing their work day from ten hours to eight hours.  This celebration has been absorbed by many other nations such as England and The United States of America which is known as Labor Day.  But what not many people know in these countries which adapted this idea is that the Eight-Hour Day was actually developed in Australia which many people fought long and hard over.  This movement also allowed better work practices and increased profits in many of the businesses of Australia.  Not only did the workers get a decrease in the number of hours in which they have to work, but their employers also saw better production rates and a lower wages payable.  The Eight-Hour Day is important to the Australian people and their culture not only because it originated there, but because it has been integrated into many other cultures.



Additional Image 1   Additional Image 2

Figure 2: Ceremonial Armour, United Tinsmith's and Sheet Metal Workers Union. (Melbourne Archives)
Figure 3: Eight Hour Day Symbol ( Victorian Trades Hall Council)


            The Eight-hour Day in Australia commemorates an historic event, and is celebrated by members of the working class.  “The term celebration can encompass festivals, rituals, ceremonies, spectacles, pageants, fetes, holidays, and extravaganzas, and partakes all of these elements” (Dorson 1982: 33).  It celebrates an event that took place almost 150 years ago that changed the way people work in Australia.  At first, only the minority of the working people participated in this “Eight-hour Day”.  This day is celebrated because it is an important achievement made by the working people of Australia to shorten the work day.  By shortening the work day to eight hours, questions arose about wages and the use of the extra time given to the workers.  The concept of the Eight-Hour Day spread all over Australia and across the oceans.  It was adopted by many countries and it is still in use today.  In the US, the Eight-Hour Day is known as “Labor Day.”  Many people do not know the origins of Labor Day and that it was the Australians that paved the way with this accomplishment that influenced many other countries in the world, including the United States.  Since it was the Australians that paved the way, it is important that they know and celebrate the fact that they developed this better working life.



Context of Australia

            Australia is known to many as the “world down unda”.  Not many people know the country’s history, but many of those people know about the physical aspects of the country.  Australia is the world's flattest and driest land mass, after Antarctica, with an average elevation of 300 m (about 1,000 ft) (Global Volunteers). The territory (or State) where the origin of the Eight-hour Day took place is the territory of Victoria.  Victoria is located in the southeast corner of the continent.  About 36 percent of Victoria is covered by forest with the major forest belt in the east.  Temperate rainforest can be found in New South Wales, Victoria, and the island state of Tasmania (Global Volunteers). Its coastline includes many beaches and harbors.  The city of Melbourne is on the shore with one of the important harbors in it.  The temperatures vary widely but most of the state falls within the warm, temperate belt of the southeast corner of Australia (Cardline).  Victoria produces about a quarter of the country’s rural output.  Products include wood, beef, grapes, and dairy products.  It also has one of the largest deposits of coal, which supplies most of the state with electricity.  Victoria’s factories employ about 34 percent of the national labor force (Cardline).  The ceremonial armor (Figure II) is the armor worn by the workers of these factories during the celebrations more than 100 years ago.  It is the “eight-hours armor made by the Tinsmiths Union to symbolize industrial strength and protection” (Museum Victoria, 2002).


Origins of the Eight-Hour Day

            Before 1856, masons, quarrymen, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, plumbers, painters, and builders of Victoria worked longs hours each day, most over 10 hours.  This left them with little time to spend taking care of their house, spending time with their family, and getting adequate rest for the next long hard day of work.  The workers of Melbourne knew they had to fight for a fair number of hours per day to work.  “The building unions worked hard to convince employers of the benefits of an eight hour day. Finally, on March 26 1856, a meeting was held attended by building workers and employers and the following motion was moved: ‘This meeting is of the opinion that the time has arrived when the system of eight hours per day should be introduced into the building trades, and that the laborious nature of the trade, and the continued exposure to the excessive heat of the climate, loudly calls for such a reform.’  The motion was passed unanimously and the Eight Hour campaign was won” (Victorian Trades Hall Council. 2001).  Thus, the Eight-Hour Day, meaning that the number of work hours was decreased to eight hours, was born.  “The eight-hour day was gained by organization, not by legislation.  The conservation of the higher standard of living was achieved by action on the industrial field through the familiar machinery of strikes, lockouts, and voluntary agreements” (Portus, 1929: 60).



            The 21st of April in 1856 was Eight Hours Demonstration Day, which has now grown to be the national festival of the former colony.  “The usual procession of the eight-hour trades, composed of 8,000 men and representing fifty separate trades, marched through the principal streets from the Trades Hall, the parliament-house of labor, on to the Friendly Society Gardens, laborer’s beautiful pleasure ground.  Before them was borne the old patched but venerated banner of 1856, inscribed with the principle, ‘Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’” (Rae, 1892: 15).  The march from the Trades Hall is diagonally opposite from where the Eight Hour Monument (Figure IV) stands today.  Celebrations are usually ” confronted by masks, images, contraptions, costumes, and the like, which represent the playful recombination of cultural traits” (Turner, 1982: 202).  The Eight Hour Day is a day of rest, celebrating the institution of the eight-hour day.  “The banner was made by the daughters of Mr. Vine, who presided over the meeting that changed the labor hours” (Champion, 1891: 104).



A Picture of the Eight Hour Monument on a Coin (Museum Victoria)

The march from the Trades Hall is diagonally opposite from where the Eight Hour Monument stands today.




Prognosis for [name of celebration]

            Because the Eight-Hour Day is a national holiday in Australia, it’s not increasing or decreasing in the country.  There is still a parade in Victoria on this day.  And even though the day was implemented almost 150 years ago, the affects are still there.  “Today, workers are being asked to make sacrifices for the good of the country. Real wages have fallen significantly. Yet company profits, especially in the manufacturing sector, are at their highest levels since the boom years of the 1960s” (Victorian Trades Hall Council, 2001).  The popularity of the Eight-Hour Day is not increasing or decreasing in Australia, but is on the increase in the countries that adapt this idea.  From its origins in Australia, countries such as England and the United States of America have adapted this idea into their own culture.  This unites the people of Australia because they are the founders of this idea that helps both employers and employees.  Just like the Americans take pride in knowing they were the first in space, the Australians are united in the fact that they created this idea of the eight-hour day.



            “In 1856 a group of workers, mostly stonemasons and other skilled building workers, won an eight-hour working day from their employers. Soon after, it became a widespread principle for building workers to work an eight-hour day without a reduction in their pay. It was widely celebrated as a world first and Australia became known as a 'workingman's paradise' ” (Museum Victoria Australia, 2002).  This was the origin of Labor Day.  To many people, Labor Day is just a day we get off work or school.  It’s just a good weekend in which good movies open.  It’s a day to just to relax.  But many of these people don’t know why they are relaxing.  They don’t know that many people fought and actually won the right to work only eight hours a day.  And they don’t know that this was done in Australia.  The people of the world know their own celebrations because they are part of their culture and our important to them.  The Eight-Hour Day is a part of Australia’s culture and it is important to them.  In a sense, the people that celebrate Labor Day in other countries are celebrating the Australians holiday just as much as their own.  This celebration is important because it involves many nations and countries, which not only unites the people of these countries, but unites the countries as well.


Internet References Cited

  • Cardline Design

    1998. About Australia!  Online. Internet.  Powered by Cardline Design.

    This website is prepared by Australia's International Public Affairs branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  Its purpose is to educate people on the geography, government, and other characteristics of Victoria.

  • Global Volunteers

    2003  Australia's Geography.  Online. Internet.  Powered by Global Volunteers.

    This website is prepared by Global Volunteers.  Its purpose is to educate people on the geography of Australia.

  • Museum Victoria Australia

    2002  Windows on Victoria.  Online. Internet. Powered by Museum Victoria.

    This website is prepared by Museum Victoria Australia.  Its purpose is to educate people on the history and importance of the Eight Hour Day.

  • Victorian Trades Hall Council

    2001  Gaining the Eight Hour Day.  Online. Internet. Powered by Social Change Online.

    This website is prepared by the Victorian Trades Hall Council.  Its purpose is to educate people on the history on how the Australians gained the Eight Hour Day.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Champion, H. H

    1891  The Origin of the Eight Hours System at the Antipodes.  In The Economic Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5.  pp. 100-108.

  • Dorson, Richard M.

    1982  Material Components in Celebration.  In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual.  Victor Tuner, ed, pp. 33 – 57. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

  • McVey, Frank L.

    1903  The Social Effects of the Eight-Hour Day.  In The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 8, No. 4.  pp. 521-530.

  • Portus, G. V.

    1929  The Development of Wage Fixation in Australia.  In The American Economic Review, Vol. 19, No. 1. pp. 59-75.

  • Rae, John

    1892  The Eight Hours Day in Victoria.  In The Economic Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1.  pp. 15-42.

  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner

    1982  Religious Celebrations.  In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual.  Victor Tuner, ed, pp. 201 – 219. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.


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