Why do we celebrate Labour Day? - SmartCompany

While the eight-hour work day is enshrined in the Australian industrial relations system, many workers regularly work beyond the traditional 9-5pm. McDonald Murholme Senior Associate Trent Hancock discusses the eight hour working day and what constitutes reasonable overtime.

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Why do we celebrate Labour Day?

For many workers around Australia, today is a public holiday.

Workers in Victoria and Tasmania are enjoying a long weekend to mark Labour Day and Eight Hours Day, respectively.

Western Australia celebrated Labour Day on March 7, while the day will be observed in Queensland and the Northern Territory, where it is called May Day, on May 2.

New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia will have a public holiday on October 3.

So what is Labour Day and why is it a public holiday?

Why do we celebrate Labour Day?

Labour Day, or Eight Hours Day as it was previously referred to in most places, commemorates the adoption of an eight-hour working day in the mid-19th century, as a result of campaigns by the organised labour movement.

Prior to the adoption of an eight-hour workday, or the 40-hour work week, Australian workers typically worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week.

According to the State Library of Victoria, workers also did not receive sick and holiday leave and their employment could be terminated at any time.

The idea of an eight-hour workday was to allow workers eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours of rest each day.

By the 1850s, workers’ unions began campaign for fairer working conditions, including shorter working days and in 1856, stonemasons in Melbourne won the right to a 48-hour working week, which meant Saturday afternoons off.

By May 1856, the stonemasons secured agreements with employers to work eight hours a day on their same wages.

The historic agreements were celebrated on May 12, 1856, with a march between the Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Richmond, which later became known as the 8 Hours Procession and was held annually for almost 100 years.

The Eight Hours Day became a paid holiday in Victoria in 1879 and was renamed Labour Day in 1934. The last Labour Day parade was held in Melbourne in 1951 before it was replaced by the Melbourne Moomba Festival parade in 1955.

Why is the public holiday held on different dates across the different states and territories?

Australian states and territories celebrate the public holiday at different times of the year as the states and territories adopted the shorter work days on different dates.

The day is also public holiday that is individually declared by each state and territory government and is not a nationally declared public holiday.

Victoria was first to adopt the eight-hour working day in mid 1856, followed by NSW later that year, Queensland in 1858, South Australia in 1873 and Tasmania in 1874.

Is an eight-hour working day still the norm?

While the principle of an eight-hour work day or 40-hour working week is still enshrined in the Australian industrial relations system, Trent Hancock, senior associate at law firm McDonald Murholme, says many workers now regularly work beyond the traditional 9-5pm work day.

But Hancock says various employment agreements and awards mean there are circumstances under which employees can be asked to work for longer.

“An employee may be asked to work overtime hours, so long as they are reasonable,” Hancock said in a statement to SmartCompany.

Among the factors that will be taken into account when considering if overtime is reasonable or not include if there is any risk to health and safety; the employee’s personal situation; the needs of the workforce; if the employee is entitled to overtime pay or penalty rates; if they are paid higher wages on the understanding they work some overtime; if the employee is given enough notice of the overtime; the usual patterns of work in the industry; and whether or not the employee has previously indicated they cannot work overtime.

Hancock said employers should be aware that taking an adverse action against any employee that refusing to work unreasonable overtime or making a complaint against them could trigger a breach of the general protections under the Fair Work Act.

Reference: Why do we celebrate Labour Day? Smart Company, 14th March 2016