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The History of Annual Leave

Published December 15, 2020 (last updated on April 18, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer

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All employers in Australia know how hard it is to keep up-to-date with the latest legislation changes. The recent rush of workplace legislation changes may seem like a modern phenomenon, as the Fair Work Act was only introduced in 2010. To recap, in addition to the COVID-related changes like JobKeeper, JobMaker and pandemic leave, this year so far has seen annualised salary changes, four-yearly updates to Awards, and casual overtime changes just to name a few.

A cornerstone of the Fair Work Act is the National Employment Standards (NES), the set of 10 minimum entitlements which must be provided to all employees in Australia. One of the minimum entitlements provided by the NES is annual leave: a permanent employee is entitled to four weeks of paid annual leave, per year, with shiftworkers receiving an additional week of paid annual leave on top of that. It is important for employers to ensure that they comply with the NES and provide their employees with their annual leave entitlements.

While the workplace relations landscape does change constantly, some things do stay the same. Annual Leave became standard in 1970; but what has changed since and when did employees receive the standard four weeks of annual leave?

1906: The First Annual Leave Entitlement

The federal maritime award introduced 10 days of paid annual leave in the early 20th century. This was the first official instance of annual leave in Australia.

The introduction of the federal maritime award also came in 1906, after a series of strikes in the 1890s brought employee rights to the fore. The federal maritime award was, along with the shearers award, the first award in Australia.

These awards were introduced by the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, an early forerunner of the Fair Work Commission.

1935 to 1974: Annual Leave Becomes Widespread

Paid annual leave – along with sick leave – was gradually introduced into federal awards.

The Printers’ Union won one week of paid annual leave in 1935, and soon this entitlement slowly became widespread in Australia.

In 1945, in the year that the Second World War ended, workers won the right to two weeks’ annual leave, and between then and 1974 two weeks of paid leave was generally adopted as the standard entitlement through Australia.

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1974: Four Weeks for Public Service Workers in NSW

Following a decision by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, four weeks’ annual leave was introduced for each year of service.

While this decision only covered public sector employees in NSW, this was the first time that Australian employees in any sector were entitled to four weeks’ paid leave.

1988-2009: A New Act Every 4.25 Years

Between 1988 and 2005, there were four major employment relations Acts passed.

The Industrial Relations Act 1988, which replaced the 84-year-old Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, came into effect in 1989. This Act was then amended by Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993.

These Acts were brought in by the Bob Hawke-Paul Keating Labor Party Government, which lasted from 1983 until 1996, when John Howard came into power.

In 1996, Howard’s Liberal Government brought in the Workplace Relations Act 1996, which replaced the Act passed eight years previously. In 2005, they passed Work Choices (formally known as Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2005).

Throughout this tumultuous 17-year period, where a new Act was passed on average every 4.25 years, the standard entitlement of four weeks’ annual leave generally stayed intact. The Work Choices Act provided employees with five entitlements, one of which was annual leave.


The following election was won by Kevin in ’07. The Rudd Government passed the Fair Work Act 2009, which came into effect on 1 July of that year, superseding the Workplace Relations Act 1996.

The Fair Work Act outlined the minimum standards that should apply to all employees, one of which is the minimum entitlement of annual leave.

Annual Leave Will Stick Around

As time has passed, annual leave has gone from a rare entitlement to becoming a standard right for employees in the Australian workplace relations system. Even during the see-sawing of workplace relations legislation for almost two decades before the introduction of the Fair Work Act, it remained a right.

Now entrenched, it is unlikely that annual leave will go away. Employers will have to keep themselves up to date on how annual leave works, what their obligations are and what the rights of their employees.

There’s no better help available to assist employers get on top of their workplace relations than Employsure. Call us now for free initial advice on any annual leave question you may have.

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