Wages through the ages: a brief history of pay

Everybody who goes to work is entitled to minimum wage, annual leave, sick leave and other conditions.

But it wasn’t always so.


In the 1800s, most Australian worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week. There was no minimum wage, no sick leave, no holiday pay and no minimum age.

But times were changing and workers were getting organised for better wages and working conditions.

In 1856, stonemasons in Melbourne took up the call for shorter working hours. They wanted an eight hour working day, partly because of the harsh climate, but also so they could spend more time on self-education and recreation. They won a 48-hour working week – with no work on Saturday afternoons for the very first time.

As the boom created by the gold rush faded, many important industries were troubled by hard fought strikes. Troops and police were used in disputes at ports, mines and shearing sheds. In the 1891 Shearers Strike, the union was defeated but the workers went on to set up the Australian Labor Party to give them a voice in parliament.

As the colonies discussed becoming a Commonwealth, community leaders saw the need to have a way to resolve industrial disputes fairly without violence or troops. Their answer was a special court that would hear from both workers and employers before deciding on a fair arrangement – this court went on to be known as the arbitration and conciliation court.

One of the first decisions of this new court was to set minimum wages for the workers at the Harvester factory in Sunshine. This decision introduced the idea of a minimum wage rate.

This was the beginning of pay system where basic rights could be guaranteed to all employees by law.

It was also the beginning of union inspired improvements to wages and working conditions, including shorter working hours, holiday pay, sick leave, equal pay and more.

In coming decades, unions would argue for – and win – many work and pay entitlements that are now enjoyed by all.


Minimum wages, shorter hours, paid leave and other benefits started with union campaigns

History of Australia's Minimum Wage worksheet


Australian Curriculum Links. History/Year 9/Historical Knowledge and Understanding/Making a Better World: The Industrial Revolution

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