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Condition of Factory Laborers

Karl Marx

London, April 7, 1857

The reports of the Inspectors of Factories, which have been recently issued for the half year ending 31st October, 1856[a], form a valuable contribution to the social anatomy of the United Kingdom. They will not a little help to explain the reactionary attitude taken by the mill-lords during the present general election.

During the Session of 1856, a Factory Act[b] was smuggled through Parliament by which the "radical" mill-lords first altered the law in regard to the fencing of mill-gearing and machinery, and secondly introduced the principle of arbitration in the disputes between masters and men. The one law purported to provide for the better protection of the limbs and lives of the factory laborers; the other to place that protection under cheap courts of equity[321]. In fact, the latter law intended to cheat the factory laborer out of law, and the former to cheat him out of his limbs. I quote from the joint report of the inspectors:

"Under the new statute, persons whose ordinary occupation brings them near to mill-gearing, and who are consequently well acquainted with the dangers to which their employment exposes them, and with the necessity of caution, are protected by the law; while protection has been withdrawn from those who may be obliged, in the execution of special orders, to suspend their ordinary occupation and to place themselves in positions of danger, of the existence of which they are not conscious, and from which, by reason of their ignorance, they are unable to protect themselves, but who, on that very account, would appear to require the special protection of the Legislature."[c]

The arbitration clause, in its turn, prescribes that the arbitrators shall be chosen from persons "skilled in the construction of the kind of machinery" by which bodily harm is inflicted. In one word, engineers and machine-makers are entrusted with the monopoly of arbitration.

"It appears to us," say the Inspectors, "that engineers and machine-makers ought to be considered as disqualified to act as factory arbitrators, by reason of their connection in trade with the factory occupiers, who are their customers."[d]

Under such provisions, it is not to be wondered at that the number. of accidents arising from machinery, such as death, amputations of hands, arms, legs or feet, fracture of limbs and bones, of head and face, lacerations, contusions, &c., amount, during the six months ending on the 31st October, 1856, to the appalling number of 1,919. Twenty cases of death, inflicted by machinery, are registered in the industrial bulletin for half a year—about ten times the number lost by the British Navy during its glorious Canton massacre[322]. Since the mill-lords, so far from endeavoring to protect the lives and limbs of their laborers, are thus only bent on escaping payment for arms and legs lost in their service, and shifting the cost of the wear and tear of their animated machines from their own shoulders, it need not surprise us that, according to the official reports,

"overworking, in violation of the factory act, is on the increase"

Overworking in the terms of that act means employing young persons for a longer time per day than is legally allowed. This is done in various ways: By beginning work before six in the morning, by not stopping it at six in the evening, and by abridging the terms the law has fixed for the meals of the workpeople. There are three periods of the day when the steam-engine starts, viz., when the work begins in the morning, and when it is resumed after the two meals of breakfast and dinner; and there are three periods when it stops, viz., at the beginning of each meal-time and when the work ceases in the evening. Thus there are six opportunities when five minutes may be stolen, or half an hour each day. Five minutes a day's increased work, multiplied by weeks, is equal to two and one-half days of produce in the year; but the fraudulent overworking goes far beyond that amount. I quote Mr. Leonard Horner, the Factory Inspector for Lancashire:

"The profit to be gained by such illegal overworking appears to be a greater temptation than the manufacturers can resist. They calculate upon the chance of not being found out; and when they see the small amount of penalty and costs which those who have been convicted have had to pay, they find that if they should be detected there will still be a considerable balance of gain."[e]

Beside the trifling fines imposed by the factory act, the mill-owners took good care to have it so framed, that the greatest facilities are afforded for passing by its enactments, and as the inspectors unanimously declare, "almost insuperable difficulties prevent them from putting an effective stop to the illegal working." They also concur in stigmatizing the willful commission of fraud by persons of large property; the mean contrivances to which they have recourse in order to elude detection; and the base intrigues they set on foot against the inspectors and sub-inspectors entrusted with the protection of the factory slave. In bringing forward a charge of overworking, the inspectors, sub-inspectors, or their constables, must be prepared to swear that the men have been employed at illegal hours. Now, suppose they appear after 6 o'clock in the evening. The manufacturing machinery is immediately stopped, and although the people could be there for no other purpose than attending upon it, the charge cannot be sustained, by reason of the wording of the act. The workmen are then sent out of the mill in great haste, often more doors than one facilitating their rapid dispersion. In some instances the gas 'was extinguished, when the sub-inspectors entered the room, leaving them suddenly in darkness among complicated machinery. In those places which have acquired a notoriety for overworking, there is an organized plan for giving notice at the mills of the approach of an inspector, servants at railway stations and at inns being employed for this purpose.

These vampyres, fattening on the life-blood of the young working generation of their own country, are they not the fit companions of the British opium smugglers, and the natural supporters of the "truly British Ministers[323]?"

The reports of the factory inspectors prove beyond doubt that the infamies of the British factory system are growing with its growth; that the laws enacted for checking the cruel greediness of the mill-lords are a sham and a delusion, being so worded as to baffle their own ostensible end and to disarm the men entrusted with their execution; that the antagonism between the mill-lords and the operatives is rapidly approaching the point of actual social war; that the number of children under 13 years, absorbed by that system, is increasing in some branches, and that of females in all; that, although the same number of hands are employed in proportion to the horse-power as at former periods, there are fewer hands employed in proportion to the machinery; that the steam-engine is enabled to drive a greater weight of machinery than ten years before by economy of force; that an increased quantity of work is now turned off by increase of speed of the machinery and other contrivances; and that the mill-lords are rapidly filling their pockets.

The interesting statistical facts illustrated in the Reports may properly claim further notice. Thus much will be understood at once, that the industrial slaveholders of Lancashire are in want of a foreign policy able to distract attention from home questions.

Written on April 7, 1857
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4994, April 22, 1857


[a] Reports of the Inspectors of Factories to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, for the Half Year Ending 31st October 1856.—Ed.

[b] "An Act for the Further Amendment of the Laws Relating to Labour in Factories".—Ed.

[c] "Half-Yearly Joint Report. of the Inspectors of Factories", Reports of the Inspectors..., p. 3.—Ed.

[d] Ibid., p. 7.—Ed.

[e] [L. Horner,] "Report of Leonard Horner, Esq., Inspector of Factories, for the Half Year Ended the 31st October 1856", ibid., p. 34.—Ed.

[321] The Court of Chancery—one of England's highest courts, a division of the High Court of Justice following the Judicature Act of 1873. It was presided over by the Lord Chancellor and dealt with matters relating to inheritance, observance of contracts, joint-stock companies and similar legal problems. It was notorious for red tape and procrastination.

[322] During the bombardment of Canton in 1856 (see Note 261↓) the British Navy lost three men.

[323] "The truly British minister"—this ironic reference to Lord Palmerston is based on a passage from Lord Russell's speech in the House of Commons on June 20, 1850, who said: "...So long as we continue the government of this country, I can answer for my noble friend that he will act not as the minister ... of any other country, but as the minister of England."

[261] A reference to an intensive bombardment of Canton by the British in October-November 1856, which sparked off the Anglo-Franco-Chinese war of 1856-60 (known as the Second Opium War).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.251-254), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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