Eight Hours Sacred?
The eight hour
day concept originated among the chartists of Britain, but in February 1856
James Stevens, a mason working on the Melbourne University law faculty building,
saw the opportunity to make it happen for the first time anywhere in the world.
Led by Stevens, building workers walked off the job and marched up to the
parliament buildings, gathering workers along the way who downed tools to join
them. They won the right to a day divided into eight hours work, eight hours
recreation and eight hours rest; and celebrated, with another march on
It was recognition
that workers were entitled to a quality of life that extended beyond
responsibility to an employer. It meant that workers could have time for
themselves. They could have the time to broaden their social interests. So
Now, more than 150 years since that achievement, just how much of a natural right is it, and how much do we value it? According to the ACTU Australia has the largest number of people in the OECD countries working long hours. More than a third of full time employees work a 48 hour week and some work 60hrs. A sales consultant stacking potato chips onto a supermarket shelf said; ‘I’m contracted for a 38hr week but the amount of work required in the contract takes me about 60hrs a week. A woman selling window blinds said she was contracted to sell the blinds for 38hrs a week but was expected to do the paperwork in her own time, not when she should be selling blinds.
But it is not just employers treating those rights with contempt. So many workers see the shorter working hours merely as an earlier start to the overtime; and may workers readily forgo that eight hour day in order to work longer hours for more money.
As marketing strategies push us to buy more and more, convince us that what were once luxuries are now needs we just shouldn’t do without, it is the social right to time spent in leisure, so hard fought for so long ago, that will be lost so easily if we continue to treat it with contempt.