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Shops and Factories Act 1896

This Act was the last of a series of 19th-century legislation establishing minimum standards for wages and working conditions in Melbourne's protected industries. Advocated by social reformers, it legitimated the right of the State to intervene in workplaces in order to conciliate between the conflicting rights of labour and capital, but it also served to limit employment opportunities for women, children and the Chinese.

The Shops and Factories Act 1873, the first in Australia, was aimed primarily at controlling the physical conditions in factories and limiting the hours of female workers. Largely ineffective, its failure was the subject of an 1882-84 royal commission, which recommended registration and inspection of all factories, limitation of youth employment, maximum working hours for all employees and control of outwork. The Factories and Shops Act 1885, although amended in the Legislative Council, did provide for the establishment of a permanent inspectorate, whose members took the lead in identifying problems and drafting later reforms.

By the 1890s the inspectors and their allies in the Anti-sweating League saw the Chinese workshops around Little Bourke Street as the major threat to the conditions of white workers. Samuel Mauger (1857-1936) - who, as secretary of the Wesley Central Mission committee investigating the sweated trades, gave evidence to the 1893-94 Factories Act Inquiry Board - drafted the 1896 Act. Establishing wages boards for the worst affected trades of baking, boot-making and the manufacturing of men's and boys' clothing, shirts, cuffs and collars, and women's and girls' underclothing, the Act also instituted the registration of outworkers. Extended to the furniture industry in 1899, the boards earned wide approval. Initially appointed for a three-year term, they were made permanent in 1905. The registration of outworkers proved more difficult. An initial registration of 2382 had dropped to 955 by 1903, with unregistered workers unprotected by the Act.

Shurlee Swain