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Hours, Wages and Profits

The struggle to reduce the length of the working day is the embodiment of class struggle in capitalism. Although class struggle in pre-capitalist society took on different forms, class conflict between those who monopolised the means of producing wealth and those who laboured to produce surplus product was a constant feature. In these societies the producers were openly compelled not only to provide the means of their own subsistence but also that of the owner of the means of production. This expropriated labour took on different appearances in different societies. In slave society the slave master owned the slave’s entire day and maintained the slave in much the same way as the prudent factory owner might look after his machinery. In feudal society the serf was tied to plots of land, which were cultivated in return for unpaid work or surplus product.

Capitalism turned human labour power into a commodity – something bought and sold. As feudalism gave way to the wage labour of early capitalism, the surplus product so obvious in feudal society became hidden by the apparent freedom of the workers to sell their labour power to an employer who would pay the  highest wages.

But while this arrangement has the appearance of a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ it actually hides worker exploitation that is the source of alienation.

When capitalists buy a worker’s labour they buy the worker’s capacity to work for a full day. Wages are set, however, like every other commodity, by the value of labour-power needed to reproduce them, which in the case of labour is the value of food, clothing, etc. needed to keep the worker in a fit condition to work. But the value of ‘labour power’ is different from the value created by the worker’s labour and this difference, called surplus value, belongs to the capitalist.

The working day under capitalism therefore divides into two parts; ‘necessary labour’ when the workers actually earns what they are paid in wages, and ‘surplus labour’ which is the time spent producing ‘surplus value’ for the capitalist employer. Naturally, it is in the interest of the worker to earn a wage sufficient to purchase the necessities of life in the shortest possible time. Conversely, once the worker’s wages have been paid, it is in the interest of the employer, the purchaser of labour power, to make the worker work as long as possible. Accordingly, in early capitalist society the owner always looked to expand working hours and keep the worker working to the limits of human endurance.

Where the length of the working day is reduced the natural tendency of the capitalist is to increase the intensity of the working day. The capitalists endeavours to get more work from the workers in order to maintain or increase the level of ‘surplus value’ which is the source of their profit. Accordingly, in many cases the reduction in working hours over the last 200 years has been achieved by intensifying work and making the employee work harder to earn their wage.

Factory Laws

The factory system transformed the way people worked. Under a system of wage labour workers were forced to submit to the regimentation of factory life where the division of labour and pace of work were set by power-driven machinery with fixed hours, six days a week. Improvements in machinery encouraged the substitution of women and children for men to reduce the price of labour power, and by 1816 a working day of 16 or 18 hours, regardless of age or gender, was common in conditions that were cramped, airless, deafening and dangerous. Parliament, representing the interests of the ruling class, was naturally attached to the doctrines of a laissez-faire political economy where social problems were instinctively ignored.

As early as 1810, Robert Owen, the philanthropist industrialist, raised the demand for a ten-hour working day, which was instituted on his enterprise at New Lanark. By 1817 he was calling for an eight-hour day under the slogan ‘Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.’ His demands came to nothing and it wasn’t until the 1830s and 1840s that a movement for shorter working hours developed into agitation for the ten-hour working day for children who were often taken by mill owners from parish workhouses in batches and treated as slave labour. The short time movement coalesced around the Leeds Tory evangelical, Richard Oastler, who headed the Yorkshire Factory Movement that organised public meetings and mass marches, including that in York on Easter Sunday 1832. It also delivered a petition to parliament where another evangelical, Michael Sadler, gathered parliamentary support for the reduction of child working hours.

The movement faced bitter opposition. Radicals, many of them factory owners, citing the laissez-faire doctrines of Jeremy Bentham, justified opposition to a reduction in the working day by asserting that state intervention was inappropriate because it interfered with the natural workings of the market. Mill owners were hostile to the Ten Hour Movement because a shorter working day for children would inevitably result in a restriction on adult working hours. Cheap child labour, they argued, maintained adult workers’ productivity and if working hours were restricted it would reduce profits and make it uneconomic to keep the workplace open beyond 10 hours simply to employ adult labour. As well as reducing profits a reduction in working hours would lead to unemployment, they claimed, because better working conditions and shorter working hours would raise production costs and make goods less competitive on foreign markets.

This reasoning was supported by eminent economists, notably Nassau Senior, the Oxford professor of Political Economy, who made the claim, ridiculed by Marx (and by what happened when working hours were reduced), that the entire profit from industry was generated in the last hour’s work each day and therefore any reduction in the working day would eliminate profit altogether. Other apologists for child exploitation claimed that the employment of child labour for long hours was acceptable because it had occurred in agriculture for centuries and even suggested that long working hours occupied otherwise idle children and kept them from becoming a social nuisance. Too much leisure time for the poor was seen as a dangerous and undesirable development.

Set against this background it is hardly surprising that early legislation to restrict child labour, including the Factory Acts of 1819, 1831 and 1833, was weak and ineffective. Despite the commitment in the Factory Act of 1833 (piloted by Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftesbury) to reducing child working hours to 8 hours for 9-13 year-olds and 12 hours for young people of 14-18, it was never effectively enforced and applied only to cotton mills. The Act appointed four inspectors to supervise the Act but mill owners responded by introducing the ‘relay system’ of child labour so that factories could still remain open from 5.30am to 8.30pm. The 1833 Act was also passed at the expense of the short-time movement that advocated shorter working hours for all workers.

Further legislation followed but it wasn’t until 1847 that the reformer and Chartist sympathiser John Fielden introduced a parliamentary bill to limit the working day to ten hours for all women and young persons up to the age of 18. It was accompanied by massive demonstrations and marches throughout the north of England and passed through parliament without amendment. This Act was a consequence of an alliance between the Chartist movement and the representatives of the landed aristocracy, the Tories, against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, who in 1846 had succeeded in the repeal of the Corn Laws. Although the textile industry was suffering a trade depression and most factories were already on a ten-hour day, manufacturers hindered the implementation of the 1847 Act by cutting wages in order to encourage opposition to the legislation on the grounds that workers needed to work the longer hours.

Three years later, the Factory Act of 1850 reduced factory opening to 12 hours each day, with the provision that factories must close at 2pm on a Saturday. The Act also reduced the working day for women and young persons to ten and a half hours, which in practice meant that male working hours also started to be restricted. As the reduction in working hours was introduced, the intensity of work increased, which meant that in many cases the anticipated fall in production did not occur and output actually increased. But the regulations only applied to textile mills and the next struggle was to extending the coverage of the Act across industry, finally achieved in 1867.

In the next decade, the 1874 Factory Act reduced the working day to ten hours for women and young persons. Almost immediately agitation for the Nine Hours Movement began and won a reduction of hours in the engineering and building industries. Trade Unions, which received full legal recognition in 1876, joined the struggle for a reduction in working hours through collective bargaining and strikes, especially in the north east of England. By the 1880s the movement began to gather around the demand for an eight-hour day.

Reversal of improvements

But the defeat of the ‘New Unionism’ (the organisation of the unskilled) in the 1890s gave new leverage to the employers and further reductions in working hours were halted and sometimes reversed. In 1906 the factory working week still averaged 54 hours and by the 1920s had only reduced to 47 hours. Not until the late 1960s did a 40-hour working week became the accepted standard. The 8-hour day was accompanied by a real increase in holidays and pensions, achieved largely, however, by increasing the intensity of work.

Since the 1970s the struggle to reduce working hours has disappeared and improvements in working conditions have gradually been reversed. The weakening of national constraints on the movement of capital from country to country has meant that investment focuses on short-term profit through share prices rather than on long-term dividends. This has increased pressure on employers to make more profit and intensify the working conditions of their employees. Jobs have similarly moved from country to country in search of lower costs and new technologies begun to make it cheaper to invest in machines instead of people.

The security of life-long employment has been abandoned and replaced by ‘short term relationships,’ where workers are expected to periodically migrate from job to job and undergo regularly retraining. The correlation between economic growth and improving social welfare has been cut and part-time working, which often denies bargaining power or employment benefits, has been expanded. Part-time working has also released capitalism from the need to provide a living wage, forcing working people to rely on multiple incomes from a variety of jobs. Unpaid overtime has become widespread and pensions and the retirement age are under attack.

In capitalism, struggle to defend and where possible improve working conditions, as generations of workers did to reduce the length of the working day, is important. But no amount of reform will eliminate the irreconcilable clash of interest between the capitalist and the working class, even if the working day were to reduce to an absolute minimum. It is only in a society of common ownership where production is for use not profit and where exchange, labour as a commodity and the wages system have been abolished that work will become a creative and rewarding experience. In such a society the distinction between work and leisure will disappear and because work will be voluntary, freed from the alienation of wage labour, the concept of working hours will cease to have meaning.