The Australian Working Class Essay

To what extent was the nineteenth century Australian working class exploited in the labour force?


By Evan Papamichael


In this essay, an analysis of the nineteenth century Australian working class (hereinafter referred to as the working class) is proposed. I hope to highlight and support my belief that in several isolated cases the interests of the working class were reflected in the labour force, yet overall, the working class was exploited by employers; in relation to labourers being forced to work for prolonged hours.

Firstly, what is required is a working definition of working class. According to the World Book English Dictionary, working class is defined as: “the lower and middle income groups of people who work for others” (1971:2392). The subject of the working class is too broad to discuss in detail, therefore a short description of its major components seems appropriate – white Australian men (hereinafter referred to as men), white Australian women (hereinafter referred to as women), Chinese immigrants, and Melanesians who were employed in the Australian sugar industry; which forms the basis of this paper. Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:96ff) describing these members of the working class, point out their significance.   Firstly, men formed the largest section of the free labourers. Secondly, women were also free labourer, yet they weren’t as numerous as men; they were restricted to working as domestic servants and in factories. Thirdly, although the largest group of immigrants were white Britons, the second largest amount were Chinese. Fourthly, Melanesians formed the largest supply of cheap labour from abroad, for the sugar industry in Australia.

The first section of the working class, that was exploited in the labour force, was men. Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:166) point out that in 1856, the Australian trade union gained an eight-hour working day, thereby reflecting the interests of men. Prior to this, building labourers in Melbourne and Sydney, particularly those in stonemasons’ societies forcefully worked over eight hours per day in oppressive conditions. This was due to the increased demand for buildings brought about by the population explosion at the time. However, due to the “Eight Hour Day”, hours of work per day were fixed at eight hours (in this section of the labour force) and to the advantage of the working class, employers guaranteed their agreement to this.

Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:169) agree that conversely, there were many men who worked longer than eight hours a day, exemplifying the fact that the majority of their group was exploited. For many factory workers employed in producing boots and clothes during the 1880s, had to work from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night. Also, in the case of rural workers the situation was worse since butchers worked seventy hours per week. Furthermore:-

            …in Brisbane, although stonemasons won the first victory in 1858 and other men in the building trades worked eight hours a day from the 1860s, one labour leader, William Lane, wrote in 1890: “This is called an eight-hour country, but how many work eight hours. Twice as many, wage-earners work ten and numbers [of wage earners] twelve right here in Queensland.” (1988:169)

Similarly, Head (1983:100) highlights the fact that men were exploited in the labour force, as seen with the failure of the Maritime strike of 1890. This strike was caused by the refusal of the maritime officers to break off their ties with the trade union, shearers at the time, resisted the introduction of non-union labour, for they thought that it would detrimentally affect their customs and rates of pay. The maritime officers and other parts of this industry were in support of their action. Following this, the eastern ports were closed since the maritime unions refused to deal with non-union wool. Other groups followed such as the coalminers who refused to supply fuel to ships with non-union labour. Also,

            … “the Broken Hill owners, closed down their mines certain other industries dependant on coal also stopped operations and some workers in the transport industry and public utilities were embroiled. Finally, more than 20,000 shearers struck. All these sections of labour were defeated before the end of 1890, and further stoppages over the next few years – notably by the shearers in 1891 and 1894, and the Broken Hill miners in 1892 – were also broken” (1983:100).

Furthermore, Head (1983:101ff) argues that to further exploit men, city businessmen took advantage of the maritime strike’s failure “to extract sacrifices from their own weakened workers and the urban workers were ill-prepared to defend their living standards in pitched battle when the economic depression of the 1890s forced this upon them” (1983:102). For boot making employers began to force their employees to work overtime in 1890; in the years ensuing this they reduced wages and used new machine methods, and to the disadvantage of the labour force the union was dissolved in 1894.

Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:62) describing the Masters and Servants Act argue that, under this Act free workers could be punished for offences against the discipline of labour, such as work being neglected, leaving a task uncompleted or damaging the master’s property, just to name a few. Conversely employers could be charged under the Masters and Servants Act for cruel treatment of their servant or for refusing to pay wages that are due. In the light of this, it appears that to some extent, members of the working class weren’t exploited in the labour force, for the Act provided them with some protection from their employers.

However, Sullivan (1985:189) points out that men in the labour force, were greatly exploited, (particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century), under the Masters and Servants Act. The Act failed to define the actual charge of which a master could be guilty, that concerning “ill-usage”, thereby giving support to the master, by assisting his evasion of any action. No master was charged by a servant under the Act of 1828 within the jurisdiction of the Melbourne Police Magistrate during the period 1836-1838. This doesn’t indicate that servants were in favour of the deplorable working conditions and conditions of accommodation, rather, … “it substantiates the opinion of Edward Day at the 1845 Select Committee who remarked “the old Act [1828] was certainly a Master’s Act” (1985:189).

The second section of the working class, that was exploited in the labour force, was women. Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:147) describing the labour force, point out that women weren’t completely exploited. For unions of male workers, at times, aided female labourers, as in the case of the Taileresses’ Union which was formed in 1882, with the help of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council,

            …but such gestures were rare and not always as altruistic as they seemed. The exclusion of women from working-class organisations reinforced the standard cultural pattern of poverty which was marked among women in the workforce: low expectations, timidity and hopelessness meant disregard for communal interests. There is very little evidence of women playing any active role in the great industrial disputes around 1890, which is not surprising since few women were members of labour unions. The membership of the Taileresses’ Union in Melbourne had declined to say 100, compared with 2000 in 1883 (1988:147).

Furthermore, Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:147ff) agree that when men faced competition for jobs from women, they viewed this action as a threat and as a result attempted to exclude females from these particular labour markets. For it was made illegal in 1894, to employ married women as public schoolteachers during the depression in Victoria. Also, under the Victorian Factory Act, female labourers were unable to work for more than eight hours a day in a factory, yet only an establishment with more than ten employees was defined as a factory. Also, certain large factories could be exempted from the hours restriction due to the discretionary power which the government possessed to authorise such action. For women employed in woollen mills in Ballarat and Geelong in 1874, were permitted to work a 60 hour week by the government; thereby indicating that women were exploited by employers.

Connell and Irving (1930:130) describing the labour force, also tell us that women were exploited. Women made up a major section of the labour force (in the 1870s), in the tobacco, boot and clothing factories of New South Wales and Victoria, for they replaced 200-300 male labourers, at a period where wages were increased due to sluggish immigration and near full employment. Yet, women employed in, say, the tobacco industry, were not permitted to learn more than one task, with the exception of managers. Women were further exploited since:

            … the average wage of these women in the 1880s was less than half that of male factory workers and barely placed them above the level of subsistence. Twice as many women were in domestic service, but if their earnings (wages, board and lodgings) were slightly better than those of the factory girl, their work was already stereotyped by the processes of labour market segmentation as being fit only for “slaveys” – unskilled female workers (1980:130).

Sullivan describing female domestic servants in the labour force (in nineteenth-century Australia), points out that these women were also exploited. For the Port Phillip Herald reported in 1846 … “that female domestic servants “exceeded all bounds. In fact there is much more of the mistress than maid in their composition” (1985:230). Sullivan also argues that although women who worked as domestic servants made important protests, these protests were few in number, since most of these females lived with their employers.   This was to the advantage of the employers since:

            … “under these circumstances articulate employers had greater opportunities to persuade the women that they were working under generous conditions. Moreover, opportunities for meeting other domestic servants were restricted.” (1985:229)

The third section of the working class, that was exploited in the labour force, was Chinese immigrants. According to Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:151) the Chinese in the labour force were permitted to form their own union, which indicates that they weren’t completely exploited. Chinese furniture labourers who demanded shorter working hours and better wages from their employers created their own union. Although a strike was held in Melbourne, in 1885 by the Chinese Workers’ Union, the movement failed. This was due to the white brother – unionists, the Furniture Trade Society, refusing to assist them. The hostile attitude towards the Chinese workers was quite common:

            When W.G. Spence wrote that unionism “had in it that feeling, of mateship which he [the Australian bushman] understood already, and which always characterised the action of one, “white man” to another”, he meant “white man” literally. The Shearers’ Union (later the AWU) recognised that “all workers, no matter what their occupation or sex may be, have a common interest”; but the union specifically barred Chinese”… “from membership” (1988:151).

Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:149ff) also states that the Chinese were exploited in other respects too. White working-class men feared that Australian wages would decrease to the Chinese levels, if Chinese immigration to Australia wasn’t restricted, since the Chinese standard of living was quite low. Also, Chinese labourers that were employed on sugar plantations, were paid lower wages than men. Furthermore, most Chinese workers performed low paid and menial forms of work, in the towns and cities, which was of a lower status than the white workers.

Burgmann and Lee (1988:81ff) describing the labour force, argue that the Chinese were exploited in other respects too. The Chinese were viewed by whites such as politicians, bale unionists, employers and workers, as a form of social destruction. Chinese labourers were abused by whites and exploited to the extent that in 1886, in Melbourne, Sydney, Townsville, and Brisbane anti-Chinese leagues were created. In that same year a resolution was passed by the Fourth Inter-Colonial Trades Union Congress which claimed:-

            The time has arrived when immediate steps should be taken about the total abolition of Chinese immigration because – first, the competition of Asiatic against European labour is entirely unfair; second, it is well known that the presence of Chinese in large numbers in any community has had a very bad moral tendency (1988:82).

Molony describing the Chinese in the labour force, points out that employers, overall, considered the Chinese as barbaric, their existence in Australia was feared since they were foreigners, and their habits were looked upon as uncivilised. For those reasons, Chinese workers were exploited in the labour force coupled with the fact that whites were opposed to this group possessing any rights:

            The agreement was put forward by some whites that, as they had discovered and settled Australia, no Chinese had any rights in it (1987:133).

Similarly, Burgmann and Lee (1988:178ff) point out that, these were some isolated cases of employers of the Chinese considering this group as being efficient. However the Chinese were viewed as cruel, barbaric people by competing workers: “By 1851, they were described in the columns of both the Moreton Bay Free Press and the Courier as “idolatrous pagans”, “filthy eating and disgusting Tartars”, “yellow and beastly strangers” swarming across a white colony and bringing “disastrous and debasing practices” in their train. “The congregation of large numbers of males together has given rise to the most appalling vices amongst them” (1988:178). The Moreton Bay Courier claimed that the Chinese were a social threat:

            There cannot be a shadow of doubt that the worst conjectures on their horrible subject are substantially founded. The blood thrills at the contemplation of this beautiful country being, colourised by, and our children exposed to the contamination of beings so grossly debased and wicked. It could scarcely be expected that such people would be acceptable in the sight of free British labourers…indeed the most deadly hatred is entertained towards them (1988:178).

Burgmann and Lee (1988:178) furthermore argue that literature which personified whites as being racially superior, influenced white workers attitude towards the Chinese. Also, the fact that employers were almost in complete control of jobs and wages, whites and Chinese competed with one another, this causing tension between the two groups.

The fourth section of the working class, that was exploited in the labour force, was Melanesians. Buckley and Wheelwright (1988:253) describing the labour force, point out that Melanesians weren’t completely exploited. However, this was only evident in the case of those who ceased to be indentured labourers (“time-expired” workers), and at the end of their indentured period decided to stay in Queensland. They possessed the right to bargain over wages with employers and to change jobs. As a result of this there were some changes in the black workforce:

            The effect of this upon labour costs was accentuated by a marked growth in the proportion of time – expired workers in the black labour force.   Further, there were some efforts by Melanesian time expired workers to form unions of their own. “Attempts by Melanesians to raise their wages were so successful that by 1895 the Queensland planters were clamouring for legislative restriction of the Melanesians freedom to bargain with employers” (1988:253).

Burgmann and Lee (1988:158) describing the labour force, argue that Melanesians were exploited to a great extent. Although most Melanesians migrated to Queensland voluntarily, some were violently kidnapped, especially during the period 1863 – mid 1880s, unaware of the harsh life that lay ahead of them: “Their old world was small scale and outside its immediate environs they were at the mercy of strange people and malevolent spirits” (1988:158).

Similarly, Connell and Irving describing the labour force, argue that Melanesians were degraded by employers:

In Queensland, employers introduced about 60,000 Melanesians for the sugar plantations, so that field labour became a separate segment of the labour market, were inferior working and living conditions persisted because of the racist disdain of white workers for “nigger work” (1980:129).

Furthermore, Burgmann and Lee (1988:159) describe the death rate amongst Melanesians as exceptionally high:

            Over the four decades of the trade, an average, fifty Melanesians in every thousand died each year in Queensland. These were young men and women in the prime of life, aged mainly between sixteen and thirty-five. The death rate amongst Europeans of all ages in Queensland over similar years was fifteen per thousand”… “The Queensland Melanesian mortality rate (147 per 1000 at its height in 1884) was unacceptable by humane standards anywhere (1988:159).

It appears that to a substantial extent the working class was exploited in the labour force, to the advantage of the employers; for they benefited from economic gain. In the light of this, perhaps it was intended that “Australia” would benefit in the long run and eventually be transformed from a British colony, into the independent country that it has become in the twentieth century.


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