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“We are not in London,” said Samuel Parnell

Labour Day in New Zealand - the fourth Monday in October - Celebrating - Eight hours a day and forty hours a week - Believe it or not! Originated by very different men: New Zealand - Samuel Parnell and USA - Henry Ford.

By Stan Stewart.

The idea of the eight hours working day originated in 16th Century Spain. However, the concept became a force in the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. In New Zealand, the eight-hour working day is associated with Samuel Parnell who is honoured here on Labour Day. Samuel fought for this right as a carpenter in Petone in early 1840.

As a young man, Samuel worked at a large joinery in London. In 1839, with his new bride, he set sail for New Zealand. On the boat he met a shipping agent, George Hunter who asked Parnell to build him a store. Parnell’s response has entered New Zealand folklore.

“I will do my best, but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day. 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 to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all”.

George Hunter responded: “In London the bell for work rang at 6.00am.”

We are not in London,” Parnell replied. With few tradesmen in the settlement, Hunter had no option but to agree. As Parnell later wrote, 'The first strike for eight hours-a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot.'

Some employers tried to impose longer hours, but Parnell enlisted the support of other workmen and informed those arriving on incoming ships of the local custom. In October 1840, a meeting of Wellington workmen apparently resolved to work eight hours a day, from 8.00am. to 5.00pm - anyone offending would be ducked into the harbour.

As the 50th jubilee of European settlement in New Zealand approached in 1890, the emerging trade union movement looked to its origins. Parnell was invited to write a short narrative of the introduction of the eight-hour day. He was acknowledged as, ‘Father of the eight hours movement’.

The Labour Day parades that began that October were part of a union campaign to force the government to restrict working hours by law rather than custom. The Labour Day Act 1899 established a statutory holiday.

Nowadays, in most full-time employment agreements, the eight hour a day is linked to a forty-hour week. The originator of the forty-hour week, was a very different man to Henry Parnell. Henry Ford, the US industrialist, introduced it in 1926. He introduced it because research showed him that working more produced only a small increase in productivity.

In 2023, it’s worth taking pause to think about working life and what is reasonable to achieve by the eight hour a day, 40-hour working week in our society at this time. These days, in our town and district it is unlikely that any eight hour a day, 40 hour a week worker can ever earn enough money to buy a house in our area!

According to Stats New Zealand, more than 1 in 14 employed New Zealanders are now working two or more jobs. Over half of the multiple job holders own their own business. Here on the Coromandel, we are aware of the difficult times small business owners have faced over the past years and into the present. In the USA the numbers of people having more than one job is significantly higher than here. An annual survey sponsored by the USA Federal Reserve Board estimated that in 2019, 16.4% or about 26.5 million workers had more than one job. Many of these workers holding multiple jobs are doing so to try to make ends meet – rent, repayments and living costs. The demographics with the highest rates of holding multiple jobs were employed women (8.4 percent) and employed parents and caregivers of dependent children (8.3 percent), with the majority of multiple job holders aged 45 years and older (52.7 percent).

We live in a wonderful country. Our living conditions and our living environment are the envy of many in the world. What we now accept as normal is the result of important decisions regarding life and work which were made in the past. However, time moves on and no doubt new adjustments will need to be made in the future.

Caption: New Zealand's first Labour Day was celebrated in 1890 with processions by trade unionists, who were battling to have the eight-hour working day extended to all industries. This sketch shows the Labour Day parade in Dunedin that year. The government resisted enforcing an eight-hour day, but did make Labour Day a public holiday in 1899. Alexander Turnbull Library

Reference: 1/2-024831-F

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