Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest: productivity in the balance

In the last week there has been a public holiday in every state, but not on the same day and not for the same reason.

In NSW, the ACT, Queensland and South Australia, yesterday was Labour Day, a day to celebrate workers (and their bosses) who worked to preserve and better working conditions for all Australians. It commemorates and is symbolised by the slogan, ‘888’, eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest, coined by Welsh socialist, Robert Owen.

In the 1800s, work days were long and arduous, often more than 12 hours a day six days a week. On April 21, 1856, Victorian Stonemasons downed their tools and proceeded to march to Parliament House, accompanied by other members of the building trade to protest against their working conditions. An agreement with employers for a 48-hour week was eventually reached but the five day work week we experience today took almost a century longer to be finally adopted in 1948.

There has been a lot of talk recently about productivity and following the National Reform Summit I have been thinking about how Australia can be a more productive nation. One thing I do know, it is not about working more hours nor is it the ‘fault’ of the worker or the boss. There are many elements that collectively feed into the overall productivity hurdle, including competition policy, trade protection, regulation, workplace relations, and capital investment. Productivity growth is driven by innovation, investment and people and improved productivity takes more than just political will: it takes dedication and reform.

It seems to me that we need a ‘new standard’ between workers, employees and government, which incorporates a framework to set the ‘minimums’ and deal with the realities of our evolving society and workplace.

This ‘new standard’ has to be able to manage the challenges in the current arrangements, including asymmetric power and its misuse – on both sides of the table – and it must be able to facilitate moving beyond the constant tension between the providers of labour and the owners of capital.

Speaking at the National Reform Summit, Jo Schofield, President, United Voice spoke of the role inequality has on both productivity and fiscal sustainability. The inequality gap is increasing. Once all you needed was a secure job but this has changed and the gap is wider than it has been in 40 years. So any measures to improve workforce participation and therefore productivity must be tailored to consider the diversity and circumstances of disadvantaged groups from the young and old, to ethnic groups, people with mental illness and workers challenged with chronic unemployment.

We know that competition is a fundamental driver of productivity, forcing organisations to innovate to be profitable and driving those that are inefficient out of business. The need for innovation both in business and education and finding ways of capturing the innovative thoughts of young people and feeding these back into business and government.

Similarly, a flexible labour market is vital for enhanced productivity. Unfortunately, there are considerably divergent views on what a “flexible” labour model should resemble in the Australian context. But flexible work practices will only increase participation including keeping the valuable input from older workers and women.

Victoria claims Labour Day’s provenance and the commemorative monument stands on the corner of Russell and Victoria Streets but to be truly a productive and balanced nation every state and territory, every political party and every person will need to collectively own Australia’s productive future.

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One thought on “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest: productivity in the balance

  1. This covers the key issues very well and articulates some clear calls to action. I was particularly interested in the comment around “the constant tension between the providers of labour and the owners of capital”. Working in the digital sphere at KPMG I have often thought what Karl Marx would make of social media and the reality of digital disruption.I think he would have approved very much. The ‘means of production’ and ‘supply of labour’ has changed in the digital world. They’ve been digitized, crowdsourced, outsourced, blogged and shared. Uber doesn’t own a car, AirBnB doesn’t own a property. Their means of production is entirely digital, and they’ve outsourced the labour to the owners of the car and home, and to their respective customers. These digital platforms and technologies are creating entirely new relationships between providers of labour and owners of capital. Our own Marketplace is an example of disrupting the traditional notion of the supply of labour. All interesting ideas to contemplate and interesting to note that Marx’s socialist philosophies remain relevant to the discussion around contemporary issues such as digital disruption.

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