Monday, October 24, 2005

Labour Day

Today is Labour Day. For those who don't know, the day exists to celebrate the establishment of the eight-hour day in New Zealand - something we had earlier than anywhere else in the world, and at a time when workers in Britain were being sweated for twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many of the colonists who came to New Zealand came to escape exactly those conditions, and resolved that here, things would be different. One of them was Samuel Duncan Parnell, pictured below:

(Picture stolen from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography)

Parnell was a carpenter, who had emigrated to Wellington in 1840 hoping to found his own business. His DNZB entry relates the tale of how he established the eight-hour day:

Among Parnell's fellow passengers was a shipping agent, George Hunter, who, soon after their arrival, asked Parnell to erect a store for him. 'I will do my best,' replied Parnell, 'but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day.' Hunter demurred, this was preposterous; but Parnell insisted. 'There are,' he argued, '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 to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.' 'You know Mr. Parnell,' Hunter persisted, 'that in London the bell rang at six o'clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to he lost a quarter of a day.' 'We're not in London', replied Parnell. He turned to go but the agent called him back. There were very few tradesmen in the young settlement and Hunter was forced to agree to Parnell's terms. And so, Parnell wrote later, 'the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot.'

Other employers tried to impose the traditional long hours, but Parnell met incoming ships, talked to the workmen and enlisted their support. A workers' meeting in October 1840, held outside German Brown's (later Barrett's) Hotel on Lambton Quay, is said to have resolved, on the motion of William Taylor, seconded by Edwin Ticehurst, to work eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone offending to be ducked into the harbour. The eight hour working day thus became established in the Wellington settlement.

From 1890, the newly-formed union movement celebrated this occasion with an annual procession in late October, which became a public holiday in 1899. But it wasn't until the 1940's that the government formally legislated to confirm the practice. This legislation was repealed by the Employment Contracts Act, and has not been restored. As a result, we have seen a gradual erosion of the eight-hour day, particularly at the top and bottom end of the labour market. According to the CTU, 20% of New Zealand workers now work more than fifty hours a week, with a consequent effect on people's health and family life. We're going backwards.

As Parnell said, "We're not in London". Neither are we in Saigon or Shanghai. Employment conditions do not defend themselves, and if we want New Zealand to be better than a Victorian sweatshop, we actually need to fight for it. That's something we should all remember this Labour Day.