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On 16th March 1832 Michael Sadler introduced a Bill in the House of Commons that proposed limiting the hours of all persons under the age of 18 to ten hours a day. After much debate it was clear that Parliament was unwilling to pass Sadler's bill. However, in April 1832 it was agreed that there should be another parliamentary enquiry into child labour. Sadler was made chairman and for the next three months the parliamentary committee interviewed 48 people who had worked in textile factories as children. Sadler discovered that it was common for very young children to be working for over twelve a day.
Lord Ashley carried out a survey of doctors in 1836. In a speech he made in the House of Commons he argued that over half of the doctors interviewed believed that "ten hours is the utmost quantity of labour which can be endured by the children" without damaging their health. However, Lord Ashley admitted that some doctors that came before his committee did not believe that long hours caused health problems.
William Hutton admitted that in the winter period he struggled to get to work on time: "In the Christmas holidays of 1731 snow was followed by a sharp frost. A thaw came on in the afternoon of the 27th, but in the night the ground was again caught by a frost, which glazed the streets. I did not awake, the next morning, till daylight seemed to appear. I rose in tears, for fear of punishment, and went to my father's bedside, to ask the time. He believed six; I darted out in agonies, and from the bottom of Full Street, to the top of Silk mill Lane, not 200 yards, I fell nine times! Observing no lights in the mill, I knew it was an early hour, and the reflection of the snow had deceived me. Returning, the town clock struck two."
Children who were late for work were severely punished. If children arrived late for work they would also have money deducted from their wages. Time-keeping was a problem for those families who could not afford to buy a clock. In some factories workers were not allowed to carry a watch. The children suspected that this rule was an attempt to trick them out of some of their wages.
David Bywater, worked in a textile factory in Leeds: "We started at one o'clock on Monday morning, and then we went on again till eight o'clock, at breakfast time; then we had half an hour; and then we went on till twelve o'clock, and had half an hour for drinking; and then we stopped at half past eleven for refreshment for an hour and a half at midnight; and then we went on again till breakfast time, when we had half an hour; and then we went on again till twelve o'clock, at dinner time, and then we had an hour: and then we stopped at five o'clock again on Tuesday afternoon for half an hour for drinking; then we went on till past eleven, and then we gave over till five o'clock on Wednesday morning." Bywater claimed that this led to physical deformities: "It made me very crooked in my knees."
Elizabeth Bentley claimed that it was very difficult for young children to arrive at the factory on time: "I worked from five in the morning till nine at night. I lived two miles from the mill. We had no clock. If I had been too late at the mill, I would have been quartered. I mean that if I had been a quarter of an hour too late, a half an hour would have been taken off. I only got a penny an hour, and they would have taken a halfpenny."
In the Christmas holidays of 1731 snow was followed by a sharp frost. Returning, the town clock struck two.
I worked from five in the morning till nine at night. I only got a penny an hour, and they would have taken a halfpenny.
In reality there were no regular hours, masters and managers did with us as they liked. The clocks in the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night. Though this was known amongst the hands, we were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a watch.
I worked at Mr. Braid's Mill at Duntruin. We worked as long as we could see. I could not say at what hour we stopped. There was no clock in the mill. There was nobody but the master and the master's son had a watch and so we did not know the time. The operatives were not permitted to have a watch. There was one man who had a watch but it was taken from him because he told the men the time.
Of the thirty-one medical men who were examined, sixteen gave it as their most decided opinion that ten hours is the utmost quantity of labour which can be endured by the children, with the slightest chance of preserving their health. Dr. Loudon reports, "I am of the opinion no child under fourteen years of age should work in a factory of any description more than eight hours a day." Dr. Hawkins reports, "I am compelled to declare my deliberate opinion, that no child should be employed in factory labour below the age of ten; that no individual, under the age of eighteen, should be engaged in it longer than ten hours daily."
Question: At what age were you when you entered upon night work in the steaming department?
Answer: I was nearly fourteen.
Question: Will you state to this committee the labour which you endured when you were put upon long hours.
Answer: We started at one o'clock on Monday morning, and then we went on again till eight o'clock, at breakfast time; then we had half an hour; and then we went on till twelve o'clock, and had half an hour for drinking; and then we stopped at half past eleven for refreshment for an hour and a half at midnight; and then we went on again till breakfast time, when we had half an hour; and then we went on again till twelve o'clock, at dinner time, and then we had an hour: and then we stopped at five o'clock again on Tuesday afternoon for half an hour for drinking; then we went on till past eleven, and then we gave over till five o'clock on Wednesday morning.
Question: Did you go home then?
Answer: No, we slept in the mill.
Are we working more than ever?
In today’s hustle and bustle world, it’s easy to assume that we are all, by and large, working more than ever. But is that really the case?
As we explain in detail below, the research on the history of working hours shows that this is not the case.
The available data shows that in the 19th century people across the world used to work extremely long hours, but in the last 150 years working hours have decreased substantially, particularly in today’s richest countries.
Working hours per worker have declined after the Industrial Revolution
The chart here shows average working hours since 1870 for a selection of countries that industrialized early. You can add or remove countries by clicking
We show annual totals, so the trends account for changes in both the length of working days as well as the number of days worked through the year. The data comes from research by the economic historians Michael Huberman and Chris Minns, who have brought together evidence from historical records, National Accounts data, and other sources. 1
The chart shows that average working hours declined dramatically for workers in early-industrialized economies over the last 150 years. In 1870, workers in most of these countries worked more than 3,000 hours annually — equivalent to a grueling 60 hours each week for 50 weeks per year.
But we see that today those extreme working hours have been roughly cut in half. In Germany, for example, annual working hours decreased by nearly 60% — from 3,284 hours in 1870 to 1,354 hours in 2017 — and in the UK the decrease was around 40%. Before this revolution in working hours people worked as many hours between January and July as we work today in an entire year. 2
For many countries in the chart we don’t have long-run series going back to the 19th century. But we do have evidence from other historical records from 1870 that in many of those countries workers also used to work extremely long hours. 3
For those countries with long-run data in this chart we can see three distinct periods: From 1870 there was a relatively slow decline then from 1913 the decline in hours steepened in the midst of the powerful sociopolitical, technological, and economic changes that took shape with World War I, the Great Depression, and the lead-up to World War II and then after an uptick in hours during and just after World War II, the decline in hours continued for many countries, albeit at a slower pace and with large differences between countries. 4
Click to open interactive version
In recent decades working hours have continued to decline in many countries, but there are large differences between countries
Zooming in to the last 70 years and looking at other countries beyond those who industrialized early, the data reveals a continued decline in working hours for many countries but also large differences between countries.
In the chart here we zoom in to the period since 1950 and we change the selection of countries to highlight some of the diversity in trends.
For some countries, such as Germany, working hours have continued their steep historical decline while for other countries, such as the US, the decline has leveled off in recent decades.
In some countries we see an inverted U-shaped pattern. In South Korea, for example, hours rose dramatically between 1950 and 1980 before falling again since the mid 1980s. And in other countries we see no recent declines — in China, for example, hours actually rose in the 1990s and early 2000s before leveling off in recent years.
Click to open interactive version
Shorter work days, but also more holidays and vacations
The decline in annual working hours described above has come from fewer working hours each day, as well as fewer working days each week and fewer working weeks in the year.
In a paper analyzing historical data for the US, the economist Dora Costa summarizes the evidence: 5
“The length of the work day fell sharply between the 1880s, when the typical worker labored 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, and 1920, when his counterpart worked an 8-hour day, 6 days a week. By 1940 the typical work schedule was 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Although further reductions in work time largely took the form of increases in vacations, holidays, sick days, personal leave, and earlier retirement, time diary studies suggest that the work day has continued to trend downward less than 8 hours a day.”
As Costa notes, workers had regular days off each week: one day off (usually Sunday) from at least the 1880s until around the 1940s, when two days off became more typical.
In addition to regular days off each week, workers across early-industrialized countries had days off from work for vacations and national holidays. This is shown in the chart here, which again relies on research from Huberman and Minns. The chart shows that days of vacation and holidays increased over the period from 1870. The Netherlands is a stark example — workers there saw an increase from four days off for vacations and holidays in 1870 to almost 38 days off in 2000.
The declines in the length of the work day and the number of working days have been driven by several factors, including increases in productivity and the adoption of regulations that limit working hours. We discuss these and other key drivers behind working hours trends across countries and time in a series of forthcoming posts. 6
Click to open interactive version
Why should we care?
The evidence presented here comes from decades of work from economic historians and other researchers. Of course, the data is not perfect — as we explain in a forthcoming post, measuring working hours with accuracy is difficult, and surveys and historical records have limitations, so estimates of working hours spanning centuries necessarily come with a margin of error. But for any given country, the changes across time are much larger than the error margins at any point in time: The average worker in a rich country today really does work many fewer hours than the average worker 150 years ago.
As the economists Diane Coyle and Leonard Nakamura explain, the study of working hours is crucial not only to measure macroeconomic productivity, but also to measure economic well-being beyond economic output. A more holistic framework for measuring ‘progress’ needs to consider changes in how people are allowed to allocate their time over multiple activities, among which paid work is only one. 7
The available evidence shows that, rather than working more than ever, workers in many countries today work much less than in the past 150 years. There are huge inequalities within and across countries, but substantial progress has been made.
A brief history of the 8-hour workday, which changed how Americans work
The eight-hour workday, or the 40-hour workweek, didn't become the modern labor standard by accident.
Back when the government first tracked workers' hours in 1890, full-time manufacturing employees worked a backbreaking 100 hours each week. Years of pressure from laborer organizers, along with changes from companies like Ford Motor, reformed working conditions in the U.S. and protected workers from schedules that endangered their health and safety.
Recent data indicates that the typical American worker is no longer adhering to an eight-hour workday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. A 2014 national Gallup poll put the average number at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many saying they work 50 hours per week.
In demanding, competitive industries like tech and finance, professionals work in excess of 60 hours a week as a rule, and are available constantly by smartphone. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story highlighted American factories where employees work upwards of 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
In a time when Americans are working more than ever before and taking less time off, it's helpful to see how the U.S. arrived at its "standard" workday.
Early 1800s: "For nearly 200 years workers, organized or not, sought to limit the workday," says Nelson Lichtenstein, history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"In the 19th century, even enslaved persons 'negotiated' with masters for time off," he adds.
1817: Welsh manufacturer and labor rights activist Robert Owen coins the phrase "Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest," dividing the day into three equal eight-hour parts.
The idea did not take hold in Europe, but it made its way to the U.S. over the next few decades. According to Lichtenstein, American workers adopted a similar slogan in the years following the Civil War.
1866: The now-defunct National Labor Union asks Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. Their efforts ultimately fails, but helps put labor reform on the political map.
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Factory system, system of manufacturing that began in the 18th century and is based on the concentration of industry into specialized—and often large—establishments. The system arose in the course of the Industrial Revolution.
The factory system replaced the domestic system, in which individual workers used hand tools or simple machinery to fabricate goods in their own homes or in workshops attached to their homes. The use of waterpower and then the steam engine to mechanize processes such as cloth weaving in England in the second half of the 18th century marked the beginning of the factory system. This system was enhanced at the end of the 18th century by the introduction of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of muskets and, subsequently, other types of goods. Prior to this, each part of a musket (or anything else assembled from multiple components) had been individually shaped by a workman to fit with the other parts. In the new system, the musket parts were machined to such precise specifications that a part of any musket could be replaced by the same part from any other musket of the same design. This advance signaled the onset of mass production, in which standardized parts could be assembled by relatively unskilled workmen into complete finished products.
The resulting system, in which work was organized to utilize power-driven machinery and produce goods on a large scale, had important social consequences: formerly, workers had been independent craftsmen who owned their own tools and designated their own working hours, but in the factory system, the employer owned the tools and raw materials and set the hours and other conditions under which the workers laboured. The location of work also changed. Whereas many workers had inhabited rural areas under the domestic system, the factory system concentrated workers in cities and towns, because the new factories had to be located near waterpower and transportation (alongside waterways, roads, or railways). The movement toward industrialization often led to crowded substandard housing and poor sanitary conditions for the workers. Moreover, many of the new unskilled jobs could be performed equally well by women, men, or children, thus tending to drive down factory wages to subsistence levels. Factories tended to be poorly lit, cluttered, and unsafe places where workers put in long hours for low pay. These harsh conditions gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the trade-union movement, in which workers organized in an attempt to improve their lot through collective action. (See organized labour.)
Two major advances in the factory system occurred in the early 20th century with the introduction of management science and the assembly line. Scientific management, such as time-and-motion studies, helped rationalize production processes by reducing or eliminating unnecessary and repetitious tasks performed by individual workers. The old system in which workers carried their parts to a stationary assembly point was replaced by the assembly line, in which the product being assembled would pass on a mechanized conveyor from one stationary worker to the next until it was completely assembled.
By the second half of the 20th century, enormous increases in worker productivity—fostered by mechanization and the factory system—had yielded unprecedentedly high standards of living in industrialized nations. Ideally, the modern factory was a well-lit, well-ventilated building that was designed to ensure safe and healthy working conditions mandated by government regulations. The main advance in the factory system in the latter part of the century was that of automation, in which machines were integrated into systems governed by automatic controls, thereby eliminating the need for manual labour while attaining greater consistency and quality in the finished product. Factory production became increasingly globalized, with parts for products originating in different countries and being shipped to their point of assembly. As labour costs in the developed countries continued to rise, many companies in labour-intensive industries relocated their factories to developing nations, where both overhead and labour were cheaper.
Eight centuries of annual hours
Calculated from Gregory Clark's estimate of 150 days per family, assumes 12 hours per day, 135 days per year for adult male ("Impatience, Poverty, and Open Field Agriculture", mimeo, 1986)
14th century - Casual laborer, U.K.: 1440 hours
Calculated from Nora Ritchie's estimate of 120 days per year. Assumes 12-hour day. ("Labour conditions in Essex in the reign of Richard II", in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. II, London: Edward Arnold, 1962).
Middle ages - English worker: 2309 hours
Juliet Schor's estime of average medieval laborer working two-thirds of the year at 9.5 hours per day
1400-1600 - Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.: 1980 hours
Calculated from Ian Blanchard's estimate of 180 days per year. Assumes 11-hour day ("Labour productivity and work psychology in the English mining industry, 1400-1600", Economic History Review 31, 23 (1978).
1840 - Average worker, U.K.: 3105-3588 hours
Based on 69-hour week hours from W.S. Woytinsky, "Hours of labor," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III (New York: Macmillan, 1935). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year
1850 - Average worker, U.S.: 3150-3650 hours
Based on 70-hour week hours from Joseph Zeisel, "The workweek in American industry, 1850-1956", Monthly Labor Review 81, 23-29 (1958). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year
1987 - Average worker, U.S.: 1949 hours
From The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor, Table 2.4
1988 - Manufacturing workers, U.K.: 1856 hours
Calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Office of Productivity and Technology
Rock singers, movie stars, athletes, and CEOs stand at one end of the income distribution. At the other end are part-time workers and many of the unemployed. The differences in annual earnings only partly reflect hourly wages. They also reflect differences in how many hours a year workers spend on the job.
Thanks to increased income tax rates since 1936, today's workers attempt to reduce taxes by converting their earnings into other, nontaxable forms of income. Why use after-tax income to pay for medical care if you can get it as an untaxed fringe benefit? Why pay for the full cost of lunch if the company can subsidize meals at work? The proliferation of such "receipts in kind" has made it increasingly difficult to make meaningful comparisons of the distribution of income over time or of earnings in different social and occupational groups.
Comparing money wages over time thus offers only a partial view of what has happened to worker incomes. But what do the simple overall figures for earnings by the typical worker (before tax and ignoring "in kind" allowances) show? Table 1 reports how the average wage for nonfarm workers rose during this century. By 1980 real earnings of American nonfarm workers were about four times as great as in 1900. Government taxes took away an increasing share of the worker's paycheck. What remained, however, helped transform the American standard of living. In 1900 only a handful earned enough to enjoy such expensive luxuries as piped water, hot water, indoor toilets, electricity, and separate rooms for each child. But by 1990 workers' earnings had made such items commonplace. Moreover, most Americans now have radios, TVs, automobiles, and medical care that no millionaire in 1900 could possibly have obtained.
|Nonfarm Employees Annual Earnings, 1900-80|
|Real earnings (1914 dollars)||Real earnings (1914 dollars)|
|Year||Money Earnings When Employed (dollars)||After Deduction for Unemployment (dollars)||When Employed (dollars)||Consumer Price Index |
(1914 = 100)
|Year||Money Earnings When Employed (dollars)||After Deduction for Unemployment (dollars)||When Employed (dollars)||Consumer Price Index |
(1914 = 100)
|SOURCE: Lebergott, 1984.|
Industrial Revolution Working Conditions
Industrial Revolution working conditions were extremely dangerous for many reasons, namely the underdeveloped technology that was prone to breaking and even fires, and the lack of safety protocol. But it was dangerous particularly for reasons of economics: owners were under no regulations and did not have a financial reason to protect their workers.
With the invention of steam-powered machinery came the Industrial Revolution, a period when there was a boom in mass production of products. It started around 1760 in England and was characterized by a shift in population from rural areas to urban centers. Skilled tradesmen were no longer needed – factory owners wanted cheap labor and operating the machines didn’t require much skill. For this reason, they would often hire women and children, who worked at half the wages of men. There were no regulations to make the workplace a more pleasant place and people were easily replaceable, which is why the factory owners didn’t care.
Factory Working Hours - History
Dhaka, Bangladesh – March 2010.
Unacceptable working conditions are often accompanied by long and unrealistic working hours. Factory managers often force overtime, particularly when deadlines are imminent. In many cases, overtime is demanded at the last minute and workers are given no choice any protest on their part could lead to dismissal. Long working hours without sufficient breaks can then lead to health problems. Women in particular, have been reported to struggle with the demands of a stressful factory environment combined with pressures from home many women working in the garment industry are solely responsible for their families. Whilst garment workers are attempting to support themselves and their families, stressful conditions are making this task even tougher.
Long working hours and forced overtime are a major concern among garment workers. Factory managers typically push employees to work between 10 and 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. When order deadlines loom, working hours get longer. A seven-day working week is becoming the norm during the peak season, particularly in China, despite limits placed by the law.
We work from 8 am till noon, then have our lunch break. After lunch we work from 1 to 5 pm. We do overtime every day, from 5.30 pm. During the peak season, we work until 2 or 3 am. Although exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime: our basic wage is too low. If we want to rest, our employer forces us to keep working.
Overtime is usually compulsory. Workers are mostly informed at the last minute that they are expected to work extra hours. In many instances, workers report being threatened with dismissal and subjected to penalties as well as verbal abuse if they cannot work the additional hours. One report tells how a Bulgarian factory which supplies European brands imposes fines on those who do not work the overtime required how Chinese workers were fined RMB 30 (US$ 3.60) for refusing to work overtime and how workers from three other Chinese factories were prevented from resigning during peak production periods by having several weeks’ wages withheld by management. Often, workers are not paid the overtime rate stipulated by law.
Long and irregular working hours make it difficult for women to meet the multiple demands made on their time. The combined pressures of factory work and responsibilities at home often lead to stress-related illnesses, including depression, headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure and fatigue. The push for more flexible working hours and the increase in informal working arrangements are further exacerbating the problem of excessively long working hours.
How Was Factory Life During the Industrial Revolution?
Factory life during the Industrial Revolution was exhausting, unsanitary and dangerous. Factories were damp, noisy, poorly ventilated and badly lit. Workers often had to labor for 12 to 14 hours a day with very few breaks.
Since work in factories required dexterity rather than brute strength, factory owners hired women as well as men and also children as young as 6 years old. Owners often sent children between and below pieces of heavy machinery, and many children were mangled and killed. Children were paid only a tiny percentage of an adult salary, and some children, such as orphans, received no pay. Children were also verbally abused and beaten. Schools were out of the question for kids who worked in factories. Women were also treated horrendously, and they earned less than men and were sometimes sexually assaulted. Men, women and children had no job security, as they could be easily replaced.
Because industrialized areas could not keep up with the housing demands of the ever-increasing populace flocking from the countryside to the cities searching for work, tenements sprang up near factories. These were filthy, overcrowded hovels with no sanitation or heating. When factory workers finally returned home after their overlong shifts, their squalid living quarters gave them no respite from the wretched factory conditions.