What is the working week?

Under Australian laws, employees work up to 38 hours in a week, or 7.6 hours (7 hours, 36 minutes) each day.

These are classed as regular hours of work, and time worked outside of these hours can attract overtime, higher rates of pay (“penalties”), or be counted as time off in lieu to be taken later.

Our workplace laws and agreements usually outline:

  • The maximum hours in a working day, week, fortnight or month;
  • The minimum time that can be worked in a day; and,
  • The spread of these working hours (say, between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday), which must be defined with the employer.

Working hours can vary for full-time, part-time and contract workers.

Your employer can also ask you to work “reasonable overtime” where required.

In most workplaces, staff are not required to work for more than five hours without at least a 30-minute meal break. Many workplaces also provide additional breaks such as a morning tea.

If you have any questions about your working week or work hours, contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

How have unions changed our lives?

Your working week was achieved because of strong unions taking united action. It was not just given to us, and it was not always there.

In the 1800s, most Australians worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week. There was no sick leave, no holiday leave, and employers could sack you at any time, without a reason.

Then our first unions stepped in.

In the 1850s, large numbers of migrants came arrived on our shores. Many were activists in England and Europe, and brought their activism and ideals to Australia, and helped found workers’ organisations.

The eight-hour day had first been proposed in Britain in the early 1800s, with the slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest.”

In Australia a new union, the Operative Masons’ Society, began campaigning using three main points:

  • Australia’s harsh climate demanded reduced hours.
  • Labourers needed time to develop their “social and moral condition” through education.
  • Workers would be better fathers, husbands and citizens if they were allowed adequate leisure time.

In 1855, workers on two Sydney construction sites won an eight-hour day, inspiring fellow workers elsewhere.

In March 1856, union members took a stand at a public meeting in Melbourne’s Queen’s Theatre, where they announced that: “The time has arrived when the system of eight hours should be introduced into the building trades and that after the 21st of this month we promise to work eight hours and no longer.”

That April, stonemasons working at Melbourne University walked off the job demanding an eight-hour day.

Employers were aghast: how could profits be assured if workers toiled for less than 10 hours?

But the stonemasons’ union insisted that workers had a right to decent rest and recreation. Workers’ lives, they argued, should not just be about their work.

The stonemasons won and worked an eight-hour day while collecting the same wage they had previously been paid for 10 hours.

It was just the start of the fight, as most workers, including women and children, still had to work longer hours for less pay.

Unions were forced to campaign for an eight-hour working day well into the 20th century.

It was not until 1916 that the Eight Hours Act was passed in Victoria and NSW, and it took until 1948 for the Commonwealth Arbitration Court to approve a 40-hour, five-day working week for all Australians.

How unions won your 38-hour work week.

In December 1981, a union campaign led to metal workers winning a 38-hour working week.

Just like in the 1850s, employers and the government opposed a cut in work hours, but the metal workers’ union campaigned to convince the Metal Trades Industry Association (the industry’s bosses) to agree to the demand.

Their victory paved the way for the 38-hour week to become standard across Australia.

What now?

Unions have always campaigned for workers to have a decent work-life balance.

Despite these wins, we’re seeing a growing number of employers replacing permanent, full-time jobs with casual and labour-hire positions.

This means the hard-fought right to a 38-hour week with a decent wage just isn’t the reality in industries like retail, hospitality, entertainment, and hair and beauty.

The union movement will always fight for your working week and will defend any attacks on pay and conditions from employers or governments.

This is why we need strong unions: to defend your rights at work and protect your right to a life outside of work.

If you have any queries on your working week, pay or conditions, contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

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