Labour Day is an annual public holiday that celebrates the eight-hour working day, a victory for workers in the mid-late 19th century. The argument for the eight-hour day was based on the need for each person to have eight hours labour, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest.
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In the early 19th century, most labourers worked 10- or 12-hour days for six days each week. The 1850s brought a strong push for better conditions. A significant part of the push began in 1855 in Sydney. On 21 April 1856, in Melbourne, the stonemasons workers staged a well-organised protest. They downed tools and walked to Parliament House with other members of the building trade. Their fight was for an eight-hour day, effectively a 48-hour week to replace the 60-hour week. The government agreed to an eight-hour day for workers employed on public works, with no loss of pay.
The win was a world first but did not end all labour problems. Many working conditions were harsh and demanding, and women were paid a lot less than men. But the victory for the eight-hour day was significant and several hundred building workers marched in a parade in May 1856 to celebrate their win.
Tinsmiths, bootmakers, tailors, metal workers and stonemasons were amongst many of workers’ groups that protested and fought for better working conditions across the country. Over the next two decades, one by one, the states brought in the eight-hour-day although the working week was still officially six days until 1948 when it was changed to five days.
Labour Day is also often referred to as May Day around the world. Internationally it is celebrated on 1 May and is known as International Workers’ Day in more than 80 countries. International Workers’ Day traces its international routes back to the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, USA. The universal significance is that, across the world, the eight-hour day is considered the fairest working hours in a day for people in any industry.
Today, Labour Day in Australia is known as Eight-Hour Day in Tasmania and May Day in the Northern Territory. It is always on a Monday, creating a long weekend. Marches or parades only usually occur in Queensland now, and not always there depending on the state government at the time.