The eight-hour day movement or 40-hour week movement, also known as the short-time movement, was started by James Deb and had its origins in the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life. The use of child labour was common. The working day could range from 10 to 16 hours for six days a week.
Robert Owen had raised the demand for a ten-hour day in 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest”. Women and children in England were granted the ten-hour day in 1847. French workers won the 12-hour day after the February revolution of 1848. A shorter working day and improved working conditions were part of the general protests and agitation for Chartist reforms and the early organisation of trade unions.
Karl Marx saw it as of vital importance to the workers’ health, saying in Das Kapital: “By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production…not only produces a deterioration of human labour power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself.”
The International Workingmen’s Association took up the demand for an eight-hour day at its convention in Geneva in August 1866, declaring “The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive”, and “The Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working day.”
The first international treaty to mention it was the Treaty of Versailles in the annex of its thirteen part establishing the International Labour Office, now the International Labour Organization.
The eight-hour day was the first topic discussed by the International Labour Organization which resulted in the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 ratified by 52 countries as of 2016.
Although there were initial successes in achieving an eight-hour day in New Zealand and by the Australian labour movement for skilled workers in the 1840s and 1850s, most employed people had to wait to the early and mid twentieth century for the condition to be widely achieved through the industrialised world through legislative action.
The eight-hour day movement forms part of the early history for the celebration of Labour Day, and May Day in many nations and cultures.