Does the 8-hour workday still exist?

Oct 22, 2021

With Labour Day fast approaching, I always reflect on the origins of this and whether they are still relevant in today’s environment.  This is something that I consider every year, however this year, while Auckland is wrapping up the 10th week in lockdown with no clear end in sight, it somehow feels a little different. The first Labour Day demonstration occurred in celebration of the 8-hour workday in Wellington on 28 October 1890.  This was 50 years after carpenter Samuel Parnell had arrived from England in Petone by boat and negotiated the first 8-hour workday contract in New Zealand.  He was asked to build a store.  His famous words will be familiar to many –

“There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.”

With few carpenters and other tradespeople in New Zealand at the time, and despite the normal working hours in England in those days commencing at 6am, the man commissioning the job had no choice but to agree to the terms.  They agreed on an eight-hour day from 8am-5pm.

From there, Labour Day demonstrations held in the late 1800s were largely political as many industries did not maintain an 8-hour workday.  This was not legislated, and the emerging union movement was using the opportunity to petition the Liberal government to do so.  What the government did in response to the many Bills that didn’t gain support in parliament, was to make Labour Day a statutory holiday from 1899.

From the brief summary above – fuller details can be read here – there are three key points that stand out for me as still being relevant today –

    1. Labour supply
    2. Labour demand
    3. The eight-hour day (in the age of technology)

1.    Labour supply

Firstly, it is not news to anyone that we are currently operating in a labour and skills-short market, with unemployment at 4.0%, as well as underutilisation at 10.5%.  Neither of these numbers take into account the current lockdown and are both due to be updated in the next couple of weeks, but they do serve to indicate my point.

As well as the widely publicised skills that are in short supply – healthcare, construction and engineering – every company that I talk to has vacancies that they’re struggling to fill.  With levels of unemployment like this, we’re virtually looking at the unemployable being left – it’s not like a jet pilot can just decide that they want to be a builder tomorrow.  It certainly seems like, despite Winston Peter’s best efforts at pushing jobs for New Zealanders; our economy is built on immigration.

2.    Labour demand

On the ‘demand’ side of the equation, often the answer to not being able to fill job vacancies is to just lift wages.  While there is always some merit in considering this, simply lifting wages may not necessarily solve the problem. 

For example, seasonal work in horticulture – this is often located remotely and may have a short season for picking.  Being paid the Living Wage might suit some people to relocate to do the job, but it won’t suit others who need to pay rent in bigger cities to keep their hard-to-find rental property and their kids in school.  This is one of the reasons why picking jobs have often gone to those on Working Holiday visas or Recognised Seasonal Employer schemes.  Another example is the shortage of qualified and quality chefs – you could pay me whatever you liked, and I still wouldn’t make a very good chef!

With CPI now running at 4.9%, (and the biggest contributors to this are housing, utilities, transport, food and recreation), everybody will be feeling the increase.  Collective Agreement wage increases over the past few years have outstripped CPI increases.  Is this about to change?  The Reserve Bank is also charged with keeping CPI in the 2-3% range, so what measures will they take to bring this down?

3.    The 8-hour workday (in the age of technology)

As I woke up this morning at 6.30am and decided to write this article from my bed, part of my reflection on this element was personal – how many hours do I work each week and how many does my husband work?  As we are both consultants, we are measured on output, rather than input, so the eight-hour workday doesn’t suit either of us.

In the age of always being switched on and plugged in (especially during lockdown!), there are many people I work with who would consider an eight-hour day to be a quiet day.

When I reflect on some of the collective agreements I have settled this year, the eight-hour workday there is not the norm either.  Yes, there are still plenty of CAs that have a 5 x 8-hour week for ordinary hours, but there may also be an element of overtime on top.

There are so many different roster patterns out there, and all have different pros and cons relating to take-home pay, overtime, double and rotating shifts etc.

    • Does the eight-hour workday still apply in your organisation?
    • What labour market pain points are you currently experiencing?
    • How can we learn from 180 years ago about the pressures on people’s time?
    • Is there anything else we can do to fill the gap left by closing the borders to skills coming in?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how to solve some of the biggest labour market problems that we’re currently facing.

Anna Holmes is a collective bargaining and industrial relations specialist extraordinaire. For the past 15 years she’s worked with companies of all sizes both here in New Zealand and Australia.