Industrial Revolution - Labor Conditions

The Industrial Revolution was a period of great change in Europe and North America – a period where progress in agriculture, technology, transportation and more allowed the development of human civilization from the previous primarily agricultural based societies. This time period between the 18th to 19th century saw many developments such as canals, roads, steam power, combustion engine, as well as significant strides in manufacturing and factory work. Immense changes occurred in society: affecting daily life and causing significant societal impacts.

The objective of this paper is to discuss the significant social effects that the Industrial Revolution (and industrialization, in general) – focusing on the working conditions and dynamic of plantations and factories. In this time period, it is evident that the employer, business owner, and middle class factory owner would benefit from the lower class, general laborer who would be unfairly compensated and be subject to poor conditions, creating a significant gap between the upper/middle and lower classes.

The period of the Industrial Revolution was not only a driving force in technology, but economics and society. Industrialization brought a new form of wealth and riches to the people who were able to capitalize on it; this largely being the middle class, and to a smaller extent, the upper class. New opportunities for jobs and employment came in the form of industrial settings such as factories and mills.

These factories can be linked to development of modern cities, and resulted in large migration by people into the cities from the farmlands where they used to live. People became employed, but led hard lives, with long work hours and low wages (more of which will be discussed later) Conversely, it also widened the economic and social gap between the rich and the poor, leading to distinct classes. The Industrial Revolution also led to more visible child labor, since it was expected for them to be employed at much worse conditions than even the regular terrible ones.

Housing conditions were very poor with large families living in small houses, with poor living conditions. Disease was rampant and death was common. All these added up to strikes and revolts by workers, against their employers. This bought the advent of trade unions, which would work in favor of the workers and factory laborers. Employers and unions were often at ends, and had to compromise with each other – workers were able to advance their conditions.

Factories in Europe dominated the Industrial Revolution, where textiles and other heavy industries were developed. Plantations also grew during the Industrial Revolution (though primarily they were results of the Agricultural Revolution) in both North America and Europe, where mainly agriculture was done. The conditions for workers in factories versus plantations were similar and different, in many ways. The working conditions were very strict, firstly, for both, in terms of time. In The Factory Rules in Berlin, the first rule was that the working day began at 6AM and ended at 7PM, with strictly measured breaks for breakfast, dinner, and tea (Bedford, p.74).

The same strict management is evident in the plantation, where it is strictly required of the manager that he rise at the dawn of day every morning and there are stated hours for the negroes to breakfast and dine, and that those are regularly observed (De Bow, p.177). There are also severe repercussions for workers who do not leave the work at the end of the day, or leave work earlier than they should, without permission – in the case of the Berlin factory, workers will not get the overtime payment and in the plantation, the manager can “punish” absentees.

In the Berlin factory, conversation is prohibited between workers. Workers must obey, respect, and report everything to their supervisor. Punishments and fines for the workers are severe (especially compared to their meager incomes) and are deposited into a “sick fund” which is assumed to be for sick and injured workers, since it is very likely there was no form of insurance. In Plantation Management, the workers are also under tight conditions, with respect to time.

But, the sick are tended to by physicians and nurses, there are cooks for the workers, the manager is responsible for some maintenance of the workplace, they are given comfortable and ample quarters, and are provided with clothing and provisions. Both of them have difficult and laborious jobs, with the high risk of sickness and injury, are paid lowly wages, and have strict timing, but it can be reasonably inferred that the plantation workers are in relatively better working conditions compared to the Berlin factory worker – they have some compensation in the form of shelter, food, and clothing.

After reading these primary sources, it is very crucial to consider how the workers are viewed in these documents. It can be inferred that the people who wrote these documents are of the middle class, and are definitely not workers. These articles are rules defining how workers should act and plantations should be run – essentially, management guidelines.

The intended reader of them are probably plantation managers and factory supervisors, so that they can properly govern and control their workers to be as efficient and productive as possible and to create an “ideal” working environment. It is assumed that the workers are almost robot-like – with minimal wants and needs and are extremely efficient, especially in the Factory Rules in Berlin. It is possible that this idea is all that industrialization is about – mechanizing the process of production and manufacturing to be the most efficient, most productive, and least costly as possible.

This same mentality is engrained in the minds of factory managers, and to a lesser extent, plantation owners. In fact, workers weren’t like this, and revolts and uprisings against the oppressive factory owners were common place throughout the Industrial Revolution, leading to the concept of a union, where organized workers band together to achieve better working conditions and other common goals.

Since worker’s lacked skill, employers had a lot of power when compared to the workers. Mistreatment and underpaid workers would create unions to maintain or improve their employment conditions. Trade/labor unions still continue to this day and they have their origins from the Industrial Revolution. These documents are very symbolic of this time period – a constant struggle for the workers, and in some cases, the business owners as well.

The differing views and conditions led to a dilemma between them – businesses want to be efficient and productive, generating maximum profit with minimal regards to labor and conditions, whereas the workers (of this time) were oppressed and had to work extremely hard without the proper compensation or conditions.

The society that produced this document was a society where the employers and business owners would benefit from the hard work of the laborer, who would be poorly compensated and mistreated. The relationship between laborers and overseers was a strained one – both had vastly different wants and desires, especially in the factory system.

The workers had to obey and respect their supervisor, who had the power over their employment and their condition. Power abuse was often and repercussions for “misbehavior” and improper work were severe. In the plantations, the manager had to work more with the laborers than against them. They had to ensure that the working conditions were appropriate, people started/ended work on time, and that clothing and provisions were available. It is obvious that the factory owner was stricter and far less forgiving with his employees than the plantation owner, although to be fair, laborers in both places had tough lives.

The Industrial Revolution bought a lot of change and progress that make society possible as it is today. Many developments were made which created more efficient processes and manufacturing and cheaper/more accessible goods. The cities that we see today may not have existed had the Industrial Revolution not occurred. But there was an opportunity cost – all these developments were made due to the exploit of laborers who worked in substandard conditions (in both factories and plantations) to the oversight of their managers and supervisors, who profited greatly.

Works Cited: Cowan, Ruth. A Social History of American Technology. Oxford University Press. (1997). De Bow. Plantation Management, (1853): 177-8. Bedford. Factory Rules in Berlin 1844, Sources of the Making of the West, Vol. II. (2001).