The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will today begin hearings on the first case to define general working hours since the 40 Hour Week in 1947.

The ACTU’s Reasonable Hours Test Case seeks to establish guidelines on excessive hours of work as an Award condition for millions of Australian workers.

ACTU President Sharan Burrow said evidence to be presented in the case would show Australian full time employees have the second longest working hours in the developed world, including unprecedented levels of unpaid overtime – only South Korea has longer hours, and there working time is decreasing, not increasing.

Ms Burrow said there was strong evidence demonstrating that excessive working hours were on the increase in Australia and were associated with life-threatening workplace accidents, poor health, family breakdown and lower productivity.

“Almost one-third (31%) of full time employees – or 1.8 million Australians – now work more than 48 hours a week – hours that would be unlawful in Europe under the EU’s recent Working Time Directive. Most of them are non-managerial workers.

“One-quarter of full time employees are doing unpaid overtime. An average full time employee now works 2.7 hours of unpaid overtime every week – that’s equivalent to more than 400,000 full time jobs,” Ms Burrow said.

“Our families and communities are suffering, but many people cannot say no to unreasonable working hours. This case offers a solution to a major social problem.”

Ms Burrow said the proportion of Australian employees working more than 45 hours a week jumped from 17.8% to 26.1% between 1985 and 2000. In the same period, the proportion working 50 hours or more per week leapt from 10.2% to 17.4%.

The ACTU’s application is supported by the Governments of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Hearings before a five-member full bench of the Commission are expected to last two weeks. A decision is expected next year.