Living and Working Conditions in Australia
Was Australia an 'egalitarian' (equal) society at this time?
Were we a country where people were more or less equal, no matter what differences there might be in their education, occupation or family background?
Were we a young country that was different to anywhere else in the world?
It is widely believed that it was but there is much evidence that suggests that this was a myth.
Australian economic prosperity was based on our exports of wool and wheat. Wool prices rose 30% between 1902 and 1914. The mining industry also provided exports.
Manufacturing was limited though the number employed rose from 132,000 to 239,000 between 1901 and 1913. Australian manufacturing relied on tariff (import taxes) protection to compete against cheaper foreign goods.
Worker's Paradise - Supporting Evidence
- Skilled workers were well paid and had good conditions compared to workers in Britain or America.
- Australia led the way in industrial relations and social welfare during this period.
- Workers formed trade unions to campaign for better wages and conditions. They formed the AUstralian Labor Party to have a strong influence in state and federal parliaments to gain workers' rights and social reforms.
- 1904 Federal Parliament established the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration to solve disputes between workers and their employers.
- 1907 Justice Higgins estblished the principle of a 'fair and reasonable wage', the minimum wage to which a worker was entitled. This lasted for 60 years.
- 1908 the Federal Government introduced the old age and invalid pensions and in 1912 the payment of compensation for federal government employees who were injured at work.
Arguments against Australia being an egalitarian and classless society or why it wasn't a working man's paradise.
- Costly industrial disputes between 1901 and 1914. There were strikes in a number of industries and in Victoria the government introduced a Coercion Act where the strikers could be sacked, losing all their pension rights. In the coal strikes in NSW workers were put in leg-irons and sent to goal. Police using batons on the strikers' picket lines.
- The working classes lived in clusters of small houses built alongside factories. Most rented their houses and sanity conditions were very poor. Reports at the time said these houses were often 'unfit for human habitation and terribly overcrowded'.
- Upper and middle classes lived in large houses with spacious grounds. Their children went to private schools and they had better health than the workers.
- In the bush there was a wide difference in living standards. Small farmers (selectors) and bush workers such as shearers and drovers earned small incomes and lived in poor housing. Graziers (large property owners) often lived in huge houses and were wealthy.
- Women faced great inequality even though we were one of the first to give the women the right to vote.
- Women were expected to devote their lives to their families.
- A woman usually had to give up her job when she married.
- Marriage was a choice for men but an economic necessity for a woman.
- Women were dependent on their husband and little power in society.
- They received much lower wages than men for the same work.
- In the clothing industry many women worked up to ninety hours a week.
- Female domestic servants usually received board, left-over food and very small weekly wages for working 14 hour days and they only occasionally had a weekend off.
- A skilled tradesman could earn five times their wages, however, if he had a family his wage was barely enough for rent, food, clothing and other essentials.