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    Democrat - January-February 2009 (Number 112)

Roots of Democracy 

Limiting the working day
(part one 1803-1890)

The struggle for regulations over hours of employment dates from the first Factory Act of 1802. This Act was to stop abuse of the employment of pauper children. This was followed in 1819 with an Act which forbade children under nine working in cotton factories, except silk, and limited nine to sixteen year olds to 13½ hours a day. Neither Act was effective as there were no factory inspectors.

A three cornered struggle was taking place between industrial employers introducing machinery who stubbornly opposed this legislation, landowners trying to retain the remnants of feudalism and workers striving to improve their poverty wages and wretched conditions.

This three way struggle is found in the passing of the 1815 Corn Laws whereby all imports of wheat were forbidden when the price fell below a certain low value. This and further corn laws had the effect of keeping bread prices high and consequently at famine level by causing low paid workers to spend a disproportionate amount of their wages on bread alone. Workers could not afford manufactures and industrialists had to lay off workers.

During 1800-1815 Robert Owen had shown in his New Lanark Mills that substantial profits could still be made with a 10½ hour day and without employing young children. In stark contrast industrial employers continued to argue, as they do today, that business will fail with a shorter working week and higher wages.

>After considerable agitation, including riots, the 1833 Factory Act limited the workday for children in factories. Those between 9 and 13 could work only eight hours, and children between 14 and 18 could work twelve hours. Children under 9 were required to attend school although no state schools were provided. Adults were expected to work unlimited hours on six days a week, only have Sunday off and had no paid holidays. This Act made provision for the appointment of just four factory inspectors.

The 1847 Act introduced the 10 hour day which enabled employers to introduce a second shift and more jobs.

Further Factory Acts were passed which limited the hours that children could work, then women, and then all workers, with the result that, by 1874, a 56-and-a-half-hour working week was the legal maximum for all workers and no woman or child could work between 6pm and 6am. Alongside this were the Chartists and their mass petitions for social reform and improved working conditions which trade unions supported.

The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) took up the call for an eight hour day at its Convention in Geneva in 1866. The movement for a restricted working day was established throughout the industrialised world and is a fundamental plank of the celebration of the annual May Day.

In 1884, Tom Mann published a pamphlet calling for the working day to be limited to eight hours. He formed an organisation, the Eight Hour League, which successfully pressured the Trades Union Congress to adopt the eight-hour day as a key goal. Owen had much earlier coined the slogan: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose”.

Gas workers led by Will Thorne demanded and won the 8 hour day, six day week by May 1889. As a result, a new third shift was introduced creating a third more jobs. This was the first time in the history of industrial workers across the world that such an agreement had been struck. Within six months 20,000 workers had joined the new gas workers union. By 1911 gas workers' union membership had increased to 77,000. One of the most important strikes following on from the success of the gas workers was the London dock strike led by Ben Tillet for the ‘dockers tanner’ (6d an hour) and four hours continuous work in place of casual labour.

   The first May Day event in the United Kingdom took place in London in 1890, when 200,000 demonstrated in Hyde Park for the establishment of the eight-hour day.

   To be continued