National

70 years ago today, the 40-hour, five day working week began

For most working Australians, the two-day weekend was born on New Year's Day 1948. On that day the 40-hour week, approved by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court the previous September, came into effect.

  • Staff reporter

This article was first published in The Age on January 1, 1948

Employers Fear New Burdens
MECHANISATION AS SOLUTION

Traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1948.  Photo: Staff photographer

Today the 40-hour week awarded by the Arbitration Court on September 8, after a hearing lasting almost two years, becomes effective throughout Australia. 

The president of the Australian Council of Trade-Unions (Mr. P. J. Clarey. M.L.C.) said yesterday that the introduction of the shorter week would not cause any great loss in production or rise in prices. 

Port Kembla steel workers, August 1948  Photo: E.C Bowen

The president of the Chamber of Manufactures (Mr. C. N. McKay) said that at a time of desperate shortages, Australia was trying to demonstrate that more goods and services could be got from the shorter week. "New Zealand after 11 years' experience had proved to her cost the reverse was the case.

Mr. Clarey, expressing the official viewpoint of the A.C.T.U., said that union leaders relied upon the great advances made in the mechanisation of industry to overtake any loss in output which might be caused by the shorter hours. 

In the past 90 years the Australian economy had successfully met two other important reductions in working hours.

"The true answer to the question of what effect the 40 hour week will have on our national economy lies in our economic experiences since the introduction of the 44-hour week 20 years ago," Mr. Clarey said. 

An Australian Communist Party meeting in Sydney on 25 March 1949.  Photo: Staff photographer

"The last 20 years have indicated clearly that scientific, technical and organisational progress has continued unabated. 

"There is a natural tendency on the part of industry when costs are rising to find means of reducing them. 

Flinders Street Station, March 13, 1947. Photo: Fairfax Media

"It causes industry to have an internal overhaul to eliminate waste, inefficiency and lax management. It almost automatically results in the discarding of any obsolescent plant. 

"It accelerates research to discover new scientific processes enabling faster, better and cheaper production. 

"Big men in industry are not concerned with slight and immediate increases in costs; they are concerned with the long-range policy of better and more efficient production at lower cost. 

"Perhaps the best example that can be given is the steadily increased production of steel at Newcastle with receding costs and lower prices." 

Australia is committed to an unnecessary and dangerous experiment in the midst of an inflationary period, and it is to be hoped that the burden will not fall too heavily upon those whom it was intended to benefit.

Mr C.N McKay, president of the Chamber of Manufactures

Production peak 

Mr. Clarey said the introduction of the 48 and the 44-hour weeks did not result in permanent decreased production. During the last 50 or 60 years production had increased enormously.

P.J Clarey, April 03, 1946. Photo: Fairfax Media

At no time in history had production been on so vast a scale as today. Production in Australia had increased steadily by 1 ½ per cent, per annum. 

"This emphasises the fact that whatever costs may be incurred in the changeover period they will be only temporary,"  Mr. Clarey said. 

Decision Accepted 

Mr. McKay said the 40-hour week was a legal obligation under the Arbitration Court's decision, and- it would be applied straight-forwardly.

He added that even now it showed up as "Alice in Wonderland reasoning that a country desperately short of production and labor could give itself any relief by working less and at greater cost.

"The availability and cost of goods and services at home and abroad should be the overriding factors in any decision to increase leisure by curtailing working hours," Mr. McKay said. 

"Dangerous" 

"It will be argued, no doubt, that increased mechanical and managerial efficiency can do much to 'take up the slack'. It has been argued that the increase In leisure would be compensated for by a commensurate increase in production. 

"It is wise, however, to rely upon competition to give the spur to increased efficiency, and on factual results, such as New Zealand unhappily possesses, to assess the likely cost of a 40-hour week. 

"Australia is committed to an unnecessary and dangerous experiment in the midst of an inflationary period, and it is to be hoped that the burden will not fall too heavily upon those whom it was intended to benefit."

Shopping Hours 

Starting from tomorrow most retail shops will observe the 40-hour week by opening at 9.5 a.m. and closing at 5.30 p.m. on Monday to Friday inclusive. The Saturday hours will be 9.5 a.m. to 12 noon.

Factories in the main will observe a five-day week, but public utilities such as trams and railways will roster their employees to ensure normal services to the public on the seven days of the week.

Post offices will close at 5 p.m. from tomorrow, but, like the banks, will open on Saturday mornings. The Five-Day Week Council is campaigning vigorously to abolish Saturday morning work for all "white collar" workers.

This article was first published in The Age on January 1, 1948