The Evolution of Factory Working Conditions

Working conditions in factories have historically been among the most hazardous of any industry.

These conditions have improved since the Industrial Revolution but still pose a hazard to many workers around the world.

Learn how working conditions in factories have evolved since the Industrial Revolution and how modern innovations and policies improve conditions today.

Working Conditions in the Industrial Revolution

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, primarily from 1760 – 1840, factories were a new source of production, and factories employed the majority of the working class. During this time, working conditions for factory workers were at their most hazardous. Textiles, coal mines, steel, and glassmaking were among the most common industries during this time, and a lack of workers’ rights policies allowed factory owners to exploit their employees. Due to a lack of other jobs available, many people had no choice but to subject themselves to the poor working conditions of factories. Workers were exploited primarily through the following: 

  • Long hours
  • Low wages
  • Child labor
  • Physical discipline
  • Dangerous conditions

These conditions posed major threats to the wellbeing of factory workers, and resulted in extremely low living conditions.

Long Hours

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, workers were expected to work for an average of 12-16 hours shifts with few breaks or days off, if any. They were often given short meal breaks, during which they were often required to clean their machines and perform any operational maintenance that was not to be done on paid time.

The long shifts that workers had to endure often resulted in physical damage, including back injuries and repetitive stress injuries that developed over time. In addition, due to the exhaustion that developed over long hours, workers were more likely to make errors that resulted in dangerous accidents. Employees were expected to work through these injuries and were offered little to no compensation for health and injuries.

Low Wages

During the Industrial Revolution, competition for jobs was extremely high, with few jobs available outside of factories. Because of this and the lack of a minimum wage law, employers were able to offer extremely low salaries to their employees. Men made an average of $8 per week, while women made approximately $4 per week, and children $2 per week, despite all working similar hours and jobs.

These low wages were often not enough to cover the costs of living, requiring each family member to take jobs in factories seven days a week. In many cases, workers lived in barracks in the factories, sharing beds with those who worked shifts opposite of them.

Child Labor

The United States at this time lacked substantial laws and regulations regarding working conditions. Due to this, factories were able to employ children with limited safety regulations. Children were subject to the same working conditions as adults, and were often put in more dangerous situations due to their ability to fit into machinery spaces that adults couldn’t.

Many factories took in children from orphanages under the guise of apprenticeships, in which children lived in factories and were provided minimal meals for no monetary compensation. Similarly, families who were unable to care for their children often exchanged them for small sums of money for factories to take them to live and work in factories.

Children who ran away from these conditions could be subject to prison time, and employers often imposed cruel punishments on children they suspected of intending to run away.

Physical Discipline

In addition to cutting wages and hours, employers often used physical means to discipline their workers. Long hours caused extreme exhaustion, and workers frequently fell asleep on the job. While this was a major hazard for those working with heavy machinery, it also subjected them to physical discipline from employers and managers. Such discipline included:

  • Beating employees with leather straps
  • Hanging iron weights to workers’ necks
  • Dowsing workers in water to keep them awake

These punishments were invariably worse when directed at children, as children were more susceptible to beatings, injuries, and sleep deprivation. During the Industrial Revolution, many children were beaten to death in factories by supervisors and employers as punishment and examples set for other children.

Dangerous Conditions

Due to the overpopulation of cities during this time, factories were substantially overcrowded. This led to frequent outbreaks of diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and typhoid. In addition, workers were expected to operate heavy machinery for long hours with no breaks, leading to extreme injuries and even death. Limb loss and physical deformation were common effects of unsafe working conditions, and for many, it resulted in an inability to work. Without substantial worker protections or social security measures, physical injuries could result in permanent job loss and lifelong poverty.

Factories had few safety measures installed for the protection of their workers. Tight, crowded factory conditions were poorly ventilated, allowing disease to spread rapidly and dangerous fumes to congest the lungs of workers. Many workers faced lung and respiratory diseases that went untreated. Additionally, emissions from machinery were not treated or filtered, resulting in toxic emissions that afflicted workers and surrounding communities with severe respiratory, skin, and blood diseases.

Read more: Working Conditions During the Industrial Revolution

Working Conditions in the 1800s

Throughout the majority of the 1800s, factories had working conditions similar to those at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Many industries faced frequent strikes and riots in response to their conditions, which eventually led to the British Parliament passing the Factory Acts in 1833. This led to regulations including:

  • Children under the age of 9 could not work
  • Children were required to have a minimum of two hours of schooling per day
  • Children 9-13 years of age could not work more than nine hours per day
  • Children 13-18 could not work more than 12 hours per day.

This act helped significantly reduce child labor in the United Kingdom and slowly set a standard for workers in the United States. 

The universally poor working conditions in the United States strengthened the growth and power of trade unions, who demanded an improvement in child lab laws at the federal level. The expansion of child labor laws in the United States was slow, with the first law passed in 1836 in Massachusettes, which required children under the age of 15 to attend school for a minimum of 3 months per year, and later limited children to work a maximum of 10 hours per day. However, these laws were rarely enforced.

In addition to childrens’ rights, trade unions also demanded improved overall working conditions. By the late 1800s, workers had gained legal rights to safety inspections in factories that ensured safe conditions and improved guidelines for machinery. However, these improvements were slow and rarely enforced in most factories.

Read more: Working Conditions in the 1800s

Working Conditions in the 1900s

Working conditions began to steadily improve by the 1900s, primarily due to the pressure put on industries by the growing labor and trade unions. The rise in unions allowed workers to use collective bargaining, in which they pressured industries to abide by the set working conditions they proposed.

Towards the end of the Great Depression in 1933, Congress passed the National Industry Recovery Act with the intent to stimulate economic recovery across the country, as well as enact new labor regulations to improve worker conditions. The enforcement of this act:

  • Protected the right of workers to form unions
  • Enforced a minimum wage
  • Allowed workers to bargain for maximum weekly hours
  • Significantly limited child labor

The protection of workers’ right to form unions and bargain with their employers led to vast improvements in working conditions throughout the 1900s. While many factories were still extremely hazardous and the improvements were slow, workers were able to bargain for improvements, including:

  • Better pay 
  • Less continuous hours and more breaks
  • Safety inspections in their workplace
  • Health aid and compensation for injuries

Technological advancements also improved working conditions, lessening the need for overcrowded factories as automated machinery replaced workers. By 1949, child labor laws were extended to cover every form of industry and strongly limited child labor across the US.

Read more: Working Conditions in the 1900s

Working Conditions Today

While working conditions in factories have steadily improved since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many places in the United States still struggle with hazardous conditions. Regulations on conditions vary across states and industries, with many factories still using child labor and low wages for migrant workers, which are difficult to regulate and enforce.

Factory conditions for workers can still be dangerous, with long hours and physically taxing jobs that cause a multitude of health problems, including:

  • Back and repetitive stress injuries
  • Burns, broken bones, and nerve damage from machinery accidents
  • Cancers, respiratory diseases, and vision impairment from chemical processes

In 2015, 61% of US workers reported intense physical conditions and repetitive stresses in their work, with hearing and breathing risks and extreme temperatures creating hazards in their workplaces. 

However, the improvement of working conditions has allowed workers greater compensation and safety assurance since the 20th century, with major improvements including:

  • Increasing minimum wages
  • Health benefits and worker compensation
  • Safety regulations
  • Improved ventilation and air filtration of factories

Labor unions across the United States have continuously used collective bargaining to improve working conditions and protect workers’ rights, as well as extend improved conditions onto women and minority populations that had previously been excluded from workers’ rights laws. 

Read more: Working Conditions in Modern Factories

Working conditions across the United States are steadily improving, with higher wages and improved safety regulations allowing better quality of life to workers. Advancements in technology also improve working conditions, with better filtration reducing the risk of lung and respiratory diseases in those who work with hazardous materials, and increased automation reducing the need for human workers in factories.

Read more: Improving Factory Conditions

However, improvements in factory conditions have not been universal across the world. In many countries, workers still suffer from low wages, long hours, and hazardous conditions.

Working Conditions Across the World

While the United States has continuously improved its factory conditions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many of the countries that produce the majority of our commodities and good still lack substantial workers’ rights. This leads to crowded factories where workers endure long hours of physically taxing work, low wages, and dangerous conditions. Countries with the lowest quality of working conditions include:

  • Vietnam
  • Indonesia
  • India
  • Bangladesh

These countries are among the highest producers of shoes, clothes, and plastics that are sold as inexpensive commodities in Western countries.

Vietnam

Vietnam is the third largest producer of clothing and textiles in the world, with over 6,000 clothing factories in the country and 2.5 million workers employed by the industry. In 2020, the country increased its minimum wage, requiring companies to pay workers a minimum of approximately $68 per month. Still, many factory workers are forced to work 50 hours of overtime per month to sustain the cost of living.

Many workers in Vietnam factories face harsh working conditions, including long hours and dangerous conditions with minimal health care. While labor unions are mandated in factories, they act as an extension of management and do not enhance workers’ rights to collective bargaining.

The country is currently working to improve its labor laws; however, many loopholes and inadequacies in enforcement allow employers to exploit their workers. Currently, 9.6% of people under 18 in Vietnam are laborers. While child labor laws exist in the country, they lack enforcement and strong legislation to prevent children from working in dangerous and underpaid conditions.

Read more: Working Conditions in Vietnam

Indonesia

Indonesia is another major producer of garments and shoes, with approximately 95 million workers in the industry. Workers face low wages, with an average of $33 per month across most regions, as well as long hours and harsh factory conditions. Approximately 60% of Indonesian factory workers in the garment industry are women who are disproportionately susceptible to lower pay and layoffs than men, and are often heavily exploited due to their vulnerability and dependence on their jobs.

While labor laws exist in Indonesia, enforcement is focused on larger factories, allowing small and independent companies to avoid the detection of mistreatment of their workers.

Substantial improvements have been made across the country in the past decade, with a growing awareness and power of labor unions that help employees advocate for better conditions. Harassment, abuse, and sexual misconduct from supervisors has decreased by up to 18% in most regions in the past decade, with substantial improvement on job security and pay for women.

Read more: Factory Conditions in Indonesia

India

The clothing industry is one of India’s main sources of GDP; however, Indian workers suffer from long hours with minimally paid overtime, and harassment from management. The majority of factory workers in India make under $200 per month, which is often far less than the cost of living. Many workers have to take overtime to make ends meet, while others are forced to work unpaid overtime under threat of unemployment. 

Few factories in India have trade unions for workers to fight for better conditions and pay, and many that do lack support and awareness of employees, making them unable to successfully barter with employers.

Due to pressures from international organizations and manufacturing companies, India is working to improve its factory conditions to better provide for its employees. Many new regulations are currently being proposed, with a goal to improve wages, hours, and social security benefits.

Read more: Factory Conditions in India

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the largest producers of clothing and textiles in the world, second only to China. 85% of factory workers in Bangladesh are women, who often work in overcrowded factories with minimal rests between shifts. Despite the majority of workers being female, many factory workers do not receive substantial maternity benefits, with most who take leave coming back to lower wages. Sexual harassment is also prevalent in Bangladeshi factories, with few women working in supervisor positions.

In addition, occupational hazards pose extreme risks to workers, with minimal safety regulations in place to keep machinery safe. In the past 30 years, over 400 workers have died from machinery accidents and the frequent factory fires that occur in Bangladeshi factories.

Labor unions are working to improve conditions in Bangladesh, with a growing number of unions led by women, and a total of almost 30,000 members.

Read more: Factory Conditions in Bangladesh

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