The honour of introducing the eight-hour day in New Zealand is traditionally assigned to Samuel Duncan Parnell. A London carpenter, Parnell, on his arrival at Petone in 1840, insisted on working no longer than eight hours when erecting a store for the merchant George Hunter. In later years other claimants have come forward to the title of founder of the eight-hour system, but Parnell's claim remains the best. The idea of reducing the hours of work was in the air in 1840. It was discussed on the emigrant ships on the voyage out, and was carried into practice on arrival. Carpenters were in the forefront of the movement; a meeting of carpenters outside German Brown's (Barrett's) Hotel, Wellington, in October 1840, is said to have pledged itself “to maintain the eight-hour working day, and that anyone offending should be ducked into the harbour”. In the Otago settlement the sequence of events was similar. A reduction of working hours, which had been agreed to on the emigrant ships, was carried out on arrival. In January 1849 Captain Cargill, the resident agent of the New Zealand Company, made an attempt to revert to “the good old Scotch rule” of working 10 hours a day, but he was unable to overcome the resistance of the working people who found a leader in the painter, Samuel Shaw. Canterbury is said to have enjoyed the eight-hour day from the beginnings of organised European settlement. In Auckland, a Chartist painter, William Griffin, led an agitation among the building trades in 1857, which achieved the adoption of the eight-hour working day on 1 September of that year.
While New Zealand was thus the first country in the world to adopt the eight-hour day, the custom was confined to tradesmen and labourers and lacked legislative sanction. From 1882 onwards, efforts were made to legalise the eight-hour day. Bills were submitted to Parliament and annual demonstrations were held in the main centres. Labour Day, which commemorates the introduction of the eight-hour day, became a public holiday in 1899 (the original date, the second Wednesday in October, was changed in 1910 to the fourth Monday of that month) but the many Eight-hour Bills which were submitted in the 1880s and 1890s failed to gain parliamentary approval. Other enactments, however, have made the eight-hour day all but universal in New Zealand.
by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.
- New Zealand Labour's Pioneering Days, Salmond, J. D. (1950).