Working conditions in factories have improved exponentially since the Industrial Revolution.
While the United States saw drastic increases in workers’ rights throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many developing countries across the world today still lack basic protections.
Learn how working conditions in modern factories put workers at risk.
Modern Regulations in the United States
Since the Industrial Revolution, working conditions in factories have undergone countless changes, beginning with unregulated practices that posed severe dangers to the health, safety, and livelihoods of workers. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the rise of labor unions put increasing pressures on employers and policymakers to enact dynamic changes in workers’ rights, including:
- Regular safety inspections
- Equal pay
- Paid overtime
- Minimum wage
- 8-hour working days
The gradual introduction of these requirements slowly improved factory conditions, making industries safer and more equitable across the country. As a result, factories in the United States face significantly fewer accidents and injuries, and workers can rely on federal protection to ensure safe and equitable working conditions, rather than organizing strikes and boycotts to negotiate with industries.
Read more: The Evolution of Factory Working Conditions
Working Conditions Across the World
As labor regulations in the United States improved, many American industries in the late 1900s turned to outsourced manufacturing for inexpensive labor. Developing countries typically lack substantive labor laws designed to protect workers’ rights and safety, leading to low wages and long hours that produce high amounts of cheap production. A significant portion of industrial production happens in nations that lack strong labor laws, including:
Currently, the common working conditions in these countries are similar to those in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. Millions of workers across developing Asian countries face harsh conditions, including:
- Low wages
- Long hours
- Hazardous environments
There are many variables in assessing the working conditions in modern factories, but these three are the primary factors used to analyze conditions in developing countries. The Internal Labor Organization (ILO), has estimated that 9.5 million people across the world face slave-like working conditions, primarily in manufacturing positions. Due to the scarcity of viable jobs in many of these impoverished countries, factory positions are the only available sources of income. Additionally, competition for these positions is high, forcing people to accept such poor conditions.
- Low Wages
Minimal worker compensation is a common and severe problem throughout many factories in developing nations. Based on the international standards of poverty, over three billion people in the world live in poverty, and studies have shown that in many of the poorest regions, the greatest asset–and often only asset–of impoverished people is their ability to provide labor. Despite this, many developing nations lack substantial minimum wage laws that help pull people out of such extreme poverty. Those that do often go unenforced, or do not provide for the costs of living. In the most extreme cases, such as in Indonesia, workers can earn as little as $33 per month.
Minimum wage laws can be difficult to introduce and enforce in developing nations, largely due to the unwillingness of governments to impose strict regulations that could inhibit production and national profit. This creates a complicated challenge that governments and employers must face in finding the balance between earning a profit for the nation’s economy, and protecting workers. However, many developing nations have struggled to find this balance, which has resulted in employees being forced to work long shifts to make ends meet, oftentimes with every family member working factory positions to support households, including children.
- Long Hours
Due to the low wages that workers earn, many are forced to endure long hours of factory work to earn a living. In Bangladesh, it is common for factory workers to work 19-hour shifts multiple days in a row. While overtime is paid, it is typically compulsory, thus refusing workers the choice for rest in lieu of work. Chinese factories also typically have long hours, with workers facing 12 – 18 hour shifts and seven-day workweeks, particularly in peak production seasons.
Working in these conditions for long hours can lead to severe health conditions, including:
- Stress-related injuries
- Back injuries
- Long-term exposure to chemicals and airborne toxins
- Mental health deterioration from long-term exhaustion
- Physical deterioration
- High blood pressure
Not only do these long hours lead to extreme health problems, but exhaustion in factories can result in immediate, severe injury from operating heavy machinery and equipment. In China, broken or even severed fingers are a common hazard in factories, stemming from dangerous equipment and the exhaustion of workers preventing them from safely operating equipment.
Many workers across developing nations are unable to decline over time and long hours, primarily due to the unlivable wages, but also due to the threat of losing their jobs should they refuse overtime. This traps workers in unsafe conditions that they are forced to rely on for their livelihoods.
- Hazardous Conditions
The environmental conditions of factories are a significant factor in unsafe factories, with many developing nations across the world lacking safety precautions and regular inspections that keep workers protected. Environmental conditions of factories include:
- Machine safety
- Structural safety
Lack of machine safety is a major contributor to factory injuries in developing countries. Chinese workers frequently face loss of fingers in machinery, as well as limbs in more severe cases. Many workers lack proper training, resulting in accidents and mistakes that lead to devastating injuries. Exhaustion from long hours compounds the dangers of unsafe machinery. Many of the machine-related injuries that occur in factories include:
- Loss of limbs from production lines
- Burns from hot machinery and chemical processing
Proper guards and barriers around machinery are fundamental to preventing these types of injuries, but implementing them can be costly for industries and factory owners. Additionally, many factories lack the ability to shut down operations long enough to implement these kinds of structural changes.
In addition to unsafe machinery, a major threat in many factories are architectural and structural hazards. In 2013, a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsed, resulting in 1,132 people killed and over 2,500 injured. This was due to a failure in the structural integrity in the factory building that went unchecked and unfixed. Similarly, over one-hundred workers were killed in a separate factory fire in Bangladesh five months later, where workers were trapped inside without proper fire alarms or emergency exits.
These types of problems are widespread in developing nations, with poor safety precautions leading to frequent and fatal accidents that harm thousands of workers per year.
Poor ventilation also contributes to hazardous conditions, with millions of workers being exposed to unsafe air and dangerous airborne chemicals. Workers can be exposed to particulate matter from smoke, as well as more dangerous pollution, like arsenic, carbon monoixde, and even airborne lead.
Short-term exposure to factory pollutants is hazardous on its own, but workers can be exposed for up to 19 hours per day, seven days a week. This can lead to serious health effects, including:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Heart disease
- Lung cancer
Read more: How Industrial Pollution Affects Human Health
Many factories in developing countries lack proper ventilation systems, leading to air pollutants filling factories and forcing workers to breathe hazardous chemicals for long periods of time.
While factory conditions have improved dramatically in developed nations since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many developing nations still struggle with providing safe environments for factory workers. The primary industries related to poor factory conditions include:
- Toys and plastic production
These are among the fastest growing industries in the world, with production heavily centered in developing nations. While workers endure harsh conditions, strong international efforts are pushing for increased workers’ rights around the world.
Read more: Improving Factory Conditions