Celebrating the eight-hour day

Celebrating the eight-hour day

Victoria’s Labour Day holiday is enjoyed by several million people throughout the state.

Some enjoy time with family and friends, others participate in festivals and gatherings throughout regional Victoria, and thousands flock to the banks of the Yarra to enjoy the Moomba Festival.

But how many people are aware of the history behind this public holiday?

Victoria was the first place in the world to instigate an eight-hour day for workers without loss of pay. This achievement is celebrated every year on the second Monday in March.

Conditions for working people in the early days of settlement could be gruellingly hard.  A group of men, many of whom were immigrants from the United Kingdom with a history of agitation for reform, got together to lobby for improved conditions. They adopted the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest”.

The culmination of their planning took place on April 21, 1856, when a number of stonemasons working on the law quadrangle at the University of Melbourne downed tools and marched to Spring St where Parliament House was under construction. The stonemasons on this site were agitating for better pay.

There was much public sympathy for the reform and the workers finally won the day. It was up to each industry to negotiate their own hours and conditions but the precedent had been set and the eight-hour day soon became an accepted norm as other industries took on the fight.

On Monday, May 12, 1856, the stonemasons celebrated with a procession from Carlton Gardens to Richmond’s Cremorne Gardens. Bands, floats, and decorative banners made the event a festive occasion. Almost 700 people took part in the march, with many trades being represented.

It was not until 1916 that the Eight Hour Day Act was passed in Victoria and New South Wales.

In 1879 the Victorian Government declared a holiday to commemorate the eight-hour day movement and it was widely celebrated throughout the state. The day was renamed Labour Day in 1934 but as the depression took hold, followed by the Second World War, public interest in celebrating the day declined. The final march was held in Melbourne in 1951, to be replaced four years later by Moomba in 1955.

The Moomba Festival takes place alongside the Yarra River over the weekend of Labour Day. It has grown in size, with carnivals, processions, fun fairs and a Birdman Rally. More than one million people attended over the four days of the festival in 2023.

But as Victoria celebrates, we should be mindful of continued inequality among the workforce and the risks that can erode our working conditions. Legislation was passed last month in federal parliament that safeguard workers’ rights by limiting an employer’s right to contact staff during their time off. The fight for equal pay for women is ongoing. •


Felicity Jack for the Hotham History Project


Image: The EIGHT HOUR DAY MEMORIAL is located on the corner of Russell and Victoria streets.  Percival Ball’s  monument, constructed of granite, bronze, gold-leaf and stone, was unveiled in 1903. Fourteen surviving pioneers of the eight-hour day movement attended the ceremony.  Around the monument’s globe the inscription reads “Labour, Recreation, Peace”.

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