Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

No sweet life for female confectioners

Working life in a factory in the late 19th to early 20th century was an existence governed by rigid rules, unsafe working conditions and long hours. The combination of household labour and a 48- hour week placed an unfair burden on women in particular. In 1909 male confectionery workers were earning more than two and a half times more wages than women. Increasing modernisation and mechanisation of work in factories corresponded with a decline in traditional artisan and domestic trades.

The Piddington Royal Commission Inquiry in 1912 highlighted the abject working conditions of Australia's women and children in factories, and reported that those of female confectionary workers were as bad as any. Despite the attention received by the release of the Piddington Inquiry, women working in the confectionery trade continued to be disadvantaged by Wage Board rulings. This led to the formation of the Female Confectioners' Union in 1916.

The Union, led by Margaret Wearne, a worker at the MacRobertsons factory, negotiated successfully with the Wage Board and confectionery employers for fairer working conditions and wages for its constituency. Interestingly, Sir MacPherson Robertson, part owner and public face of the MacRobertsons factory, sat on the Wage Board at this time. The Female Confectioners' Union went on to be an active voice in the defence of female workers rights for almost 30 years. It was amalgamated with the Federated Confectioners' Union in 1945.

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