How the 8-hour working day became a global labour standard in 1919

On the 28th of November 1919 in
Washington the first international labour standard of the ILO was adopted. The
hours of work industry convention 001 limited working time to eight hours a
day and forty-eight hours a week. An average work week for a full-time
manufacturing employee in the United States in 1890 was 100 hours. The origins of the movement for an eight-hour day began with the Industrial Revolution in
Britain. In 1817 British textile manufacturer Robert Owen raised the
demand and coined the phrase eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours
rest. The first piece of British legislation governing work hours was the
factory Act of 1833 limiting the work day for children in factories. In the
United States the Labor Reform Association founded in 1864 and the
Grande Eight-hour League of Massachusetts formed a year later became
the centres of the American movement. Meanwhile in Australia trade unionist
James Stephens led stonemasons in Melbourne to agitate for an eight-hour
working day, which they eventually won. With the growing integration of the
world economy and the development of the global trade union movement the call for
an eight-hour working day became global. By the start of the 20th century the
eight-hour work day was becoming a reality for more and more people and at
the end of the First World War eight-hour laws of varying scope had
been enacted across Europe. In the meantime the social situation was
explosive and labour unrest widespread. “Unrest so great that the peace and
harmony of the world are imperiled.” To face this challenge the International
Labour Organization was created in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
The peace treaty included the declaration that “the adoption of an
eight hours day or a forty-eight hours week as the standard to be aimed at” was
of “special and urgent importance”. This urgent call was soon met at the
first session of the International Labour Conference in Washington in 1919 with the adoption of convention 001. A landmark for workers’ rights the
convention has had far-reaching impact on normalizing the eight-hour workday
and has been an enduring pillar of modern working life.

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