1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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This article examines unemployment, employment by industry, and trade union membership, and describes some of the major changes in these aspects of the labour force over the twentieth century. There are also data on the use of child labour in factories in Australia earlier in the century, and its decline later in the century.


Unemployment is an important economic and social indicator that has been measured and recorded in Australia throughout the twentieth century. The way in which unemployment is now measured by the Labour Force Survey (LFS) dates back to 1960. Prior to this, a measure of unemployment was available from the reporting by trade unions of the number of unemployed members on an annual basis from 1906 to 1954, with less frequent data from 1891. These unemployment statistics are not directly comparable over time, but some broad time series comparisons are possible. The unemployment rates presented are calendar year averages.

The unemployment rate has fluctuated throughout the century, with peaks and troughs closely reflecting movements in the economic cycle (graph 6.44). In 1906, unemployment stood at 6.7%, and fluctuated at around this rate (though it rose briefly to a little over 9% in 1915, and just over 11% in 1921) until 1929 when unemployment stood at 11.1%. The unemployment rate then increased rapidly to 19.3% in 1930, before reaching a peak of 29.0% in 1932, in response to the economic conditions of the Great Depression. This unprecedented high rate of unemployment persisted for two years, before the unemployment rate fell rapidly to below 10% by 1937. During World War II, unemployment in Australia reached a new low of 1.1%. This marked the beginning of a sustained period of low unemployment, with the unemployment rate generally remaining below 3% until the early 1970s.

From the early 1970s until the early 1990s, rises in the unemployment rate reflected the business cycle, as well as industry and organisation restructuring. A further notable characteristic of the unemployment rate during this period was the persistence of relatively high rates of unemployment following economic downturns. In 1975 the unemployment rate stood at 4.9%, reaching 6.3% in 1978 and 1979. This higher rate of unemployment was not reversed in the early 1980s. By 1983 the Australian economy had experienced another economic recession and the effects were manifested in a substantial increase in the unemployment rate to 10.0%. The unemployment rate recovered to 6.2% in 1989. It then increased again, reaching a peak of 10.9% in 1993 following the severe economic downturn of 1990-91. The unemployment rate has been generally falling since then. By 1999 it had fallen to 7.2%, slightly higher than it was near the beginning of the century.


The composition of Australian industry has changed dramatically over the last century. Australia has evolved from an economy heavily reliant on primary industries and the production of goods, to one in which industries providing services have assumed increasing importance. This article draws on Keating (1973),1 time series from 1910-11 to 1960-61, and industry data from August 1966 from the Labour Force Survey, to provide a broad account of the changes in employment by industry.

In terms of the proportion of all employed persons, the particular importance of the primary and manufacturing industries over the first half of the century is apparent. Employment in the primary industries (predominantly mining and agriculture) together with employment in the manufacturing industry accounted for just over half (52%) of total employment in 1910-11, but was in slow decline or static through most of the next three decades. War-related activity was accompanied by a return to 1910-11 proportions (52%) in the early 1940s. The pattern of sustained slow decline in the relative importance of primary and manufacturing industries resumed after the war, continuing to the present day. By 1999, employment in these industries was reduced to 19% of all employed persons. Service industries such as wholesale and retail trade, finance, education, health and personal services have grown to take over as the major industries of employment.

In 1910-11, 98,000 or approximately 6% of all employed persons worked in the mining industry. A substantial decline in employment in mining occurred in the early part of the century, falling to 2% of total employment by 1927-28. In 1999 mining employed 76,000 persons, less than 1% of all employed persons.

Agriculture and related industries (forestry, fishing and hunting) employed 422,000 persons, or 26% of total employment, in 1910-11. Apart from a brief resurgence at the time of the Depression, the relative importance of employment in these primary industries has been in steady decline for many decades, although the rate of decline has slowed in recent years. Notably, the number of persons employed in agriculture and related industries in 1999 was similar to that early in the century, but the proportion of total employment had declined significantly to around 5% (graph 6.45).

Manufacturing was one of the most important industries throughout much of the twentieth century. In 1910-11 it employed 361,000 persons, accounting for 21% of total employment. Employment in manufacturing grew rapidly after the Depression, reaching 33% of all employed persons by the mid-1940s. From the mid-1960s, when employment in manufacturing stood at 25%, the proportion fell steadily, and by 1999 manufacturing accounted for only 12% of total employment or 1,068,000 persons. Although the number of persons employed in manufacturing had increased almost three-fold over the century, the proportion of total employment was almost halved.

The composition of the manufacturing industry itself also changed. Early in the century, textiles and clothing manufacturing was the most significant manufacturing activity in employment terms, accounting for 34% of employment in manufacturing in 1910-11. This declined to 26% by 1920-21, to 15% by 1960-61, and to 7% by 1999.

The other major manufacturing activity at the beginning of the century was metals, engineering and vehicles, with 22% of all manufacturing employment in 1910-11. This grew substantially to 44% of all employment in manufacturing by 1943-44, and remained the most significant manufacturing area with 37% of all manufacturing employment in 1999.

Some industries remained quite static over the course of the century in terms of their employment share. These included the transport and communication industry and the building and construction industry, each accounting for between 7% and 8% of total employment throughout the century.

Service industries gradually grew in terms of employment, to become the major employers at the end of the century. In 1910-11 commerce employed 13% of all employed persons, increasing to 17% of total employment in 1960-61. Community and business services accounted for 5% of total employment in 1910-11, increasing to 9% of total employment in 1960-61. By 1999, persons employed in wholesale and retail trade accounted for 21% of total employment, property and business services for 11%, health and community services for 9%, and cultural, recreation, personal and other services for 6% of total employment. Other service industries such as finance and insurance, and accommodation, cafes and restaurants, employed smaller but still substantial numbers of people in 1999.


Trade union membership in Australia experienced growth throughout much of the twentieth century, followed by a decline in membership over the latter part of the century. Information on the number of trade union members was first collected in 1912, when there were 433,000 members, representing around 30% of all employees (graph 6.46). A relatively rapid increase in trade union membership over the following years resulted in the number of trade union members more than doubling to 912,000 persons by 1927, or half of all employees. Growth in the number of trade union members continued, despite fluctuating membership during the war years, to reach a peak of over 2.1 million persons, or approximately 60% of all employees, in 1961. Trade union membership then began to decline to just over half of all employees by the early 1970s.

Although the numbers of trade union members had increased to 2.7 million by 1990, the proportion of all employees who were trade union members had continued to decline to 41%. By the close of the century, there were 1.9 million union members, or 26% of all employees. Factors contributing to the decline of trade union membership are likely to be changing work place relations, increase in part time and casual employment which historically has been less unionised, and changing industry composition.


For the greater part of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for children to be employed in factories. In this context the term 'child' was taken to mean persons under the age of sixteen, except in New South Wales, where it meant any persons under fifteen. Children were generally not allowed to work in factories in Australia until they reached the age of thirteen. Certain conditions prevailed for the use of child labour in factories. The Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-19072 quotes legislation stating: "On the whole the conditions of labour are satisfactory, and opportunity is assured that a proper period shall be devoted to elementary education, and that the early years of toil shall not exhaust the worker before the attainment of full growth".

In 1906 there were approximately 10,000 children employed in factories in Australia, rising to 20,000 or more in the 1920s. The factory employment of children peaked in 1940 when there were approximately 34,000 children working in factories in Australia, accounting for around 6% of all persons employed in factories. This peak was followed by a large decline in child labour in factories, to 14,000 by 1948 (less than 2% of factory employment). Possible reasons for this decline were given as: raising of the leaving age for schooling in some States; fewer children being available for employment due to a decline in the birth rate; the post war social and economic conditions; and the higher level of employment, which enabled parents to keep their children at school beyond the statutory leaving age.

By the time of the final collection/publication of these statistics in 1968, there were 9,000 children employed in factories (less than 1% of factory employment). Child labour tended to be concentrated in specific industries; those having the greatest concentration of child employees were metals and machinery for males, and clothing and textiles for females.


1 Keating. M. 1973, The Australian Workforce 1910-11 to 1960-61, The Australian National University, Canberra.
2 Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS) 1908, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-1907, Government Printer, Melbourne.