Workplace Injuries

Landmark Cases That Paved the Way for Workers Rights

Peta Miller
May 15, 2017
min read
Old timey photo of workers

As modern Australian workers we may consider the boss turning a blind eye to a sly check of Facebook or fourth coffee run of the day as having our rights valued. Or perhaps you are working as a contractor and wondering if that upcoming birthday "sickie" should in fact be covered by the boss?

From factory girls aglow with radium to suburban townhouse sweatshops, the global history of workers’ rights illustrates a timeline of both inspiring and bewildering cases that have transpired to the current standard of rights for Australian employees.

Union demonstrations from 1891 and 2015

The seeds for Labour Day, initially known as "Workers Day", were sown on the 1st of May 1891 with the establishment of what is now known as the Australian Labour Party. This was the culmination of almost four months of workers protesting, striking and parading in what was known as the "Shearers Strike"; an event with little violence but, more disturbingly for the Australian Government and economy, very little shearing.

The following years saw the political party introducing workers rights that we expect and value today, from the introduction of workers compensation in 1902 to one week of annual leave becoming standard in 1941. However, despite this landmark occasion and the Labour Party's various preceding 20th century achievements, many disturbing global workplace events have since occurred that altered how we work forever.

Woman with eyes closed

The Radium Girls; the title could just as likely preface an introspective of the next upcoming Netflix craze, however, unfortunately it is in fact the namesake of a disturbing historical case involving gruesome neglect of workplace health and safety. The tragic event in labour history involved the young female clock factory employees of World War One.

Considered an esteemed working class position, the girls would tirelessly paint clock faces with luminous radium solution and afterwards literally light up the dance floor with their glowing dresses, skin and teeth. Their health and safety was deceitfully assured by bosses who encouraged them to lick the radium stained paintbrushes to ensure a neater line and a higher standard of work.

Good pay and the talk of the town hall dances, The Radium Girls likely counted their lucky stars until one by one they began falling seriously ill; toothaches that led to entire pieces of jaw simply falling from their mouths or abdominal tumours the size of footballs. The freakish ailments of course led to a body count and a group of employees, given only months to live, banded together and took legal action against the factory.

What ensued was one of the first ever cases of an employer being held responsible for the health and safety of employees; a legacy we all expect as a basic right by today's standards.

Another workplace regularity we depend on today is the assurance that we can feel safe and secure in our place of employment without being propositioned or assaulted by other staff members or management. However, not long ago many employees lived with sexual harassment in the workplace; with the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit only taking place in America in the 1980s.

The women employed by Minnesota's Eveleth Mines were constantly subjected to physical attacks, obscene language, groping and indecent exposure from their male coworkers. The class-action lawsuit, headed by disgruntled employee Anita Hill, lifted the veil on workplace sexual assault and is now considered a landmark case that shaped current workers rights.

The Jenson vs Eveleth Mines case of 1988 paved the way for women to prevail against workplace discrimination and assault while pushing employers to adopt substantial anti-harassment policies that would help shape the rights we have as employees today.

Women sitting on the street

In 1995 Californian police and federal agents followed a tip to raid what is now known as the notorious El Monte Sweatshop. Disguised as townhouses, the suburban sweatshops held captive Thai immigrants behind their boarded up doors and windows; nine adults to one bedroom, working daily from 7am to midnight to repay the smugglers fees and for obscenely priced food rations.

After the employees were released a specialist visa for crime victims was developed which allowed the workers to bring their families to live with them in the United States, with many going on to become important labour rights activists. Still today, this case is considered to be a turning point in both immigration and labour policies as well as the policing of wage theft.

Although our modern Australian workplaces are streamlined with an excellent standard of rights and regulations, there still remain issues to be exposed and fought. The innovative and booming "gig" industry has allowed many individuals to work their own selected hours and days with companies such as Uber or Deliveroo. This poses the question of what should become of the modern workers rights?

If an Uber driver falls ill will he simply go without an income until he is well enough to drive? Is it fair that a marketing assistant working on a contracting basis should have to sacrifice a week of pay if they need leave? With the ever expanding and changing notion of what we consider "employment", it should be expected that there will be many more historical and world changing workers rights cases ahead of us.

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