Sunday, February 8, 2009

History 112: Factory Regulations (Part I)

I would like to discuss the two examples of factory regulations in the reading. It is very easy to what is interesting in the rather lurid accounts by factory workers of their working conditions. By comparison the factory regulations seem rather prosaic. For me it is precisely these factory regulations that interest me. While a casual reading of these regulations may make them appear rather begnin, and this was most likely the intention of those who wrote them, one has to just scratch below the surface to see a far darker picture. These regulations are designed to make it impossible to engage in any form of protest and place workers completely at the mercy of the whims of those in charge.

Rules for Workers in the Foundry and Engineering Works of the Royal Overseas Trading Company, Berlin, 1844

(1) The normal working day begins at all seasons at 6 a.m. precisely and ends, after the usual break of half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea, at 7 p.m., and it shall be strictly observed. … The doorkeeper shall lock the door punctually at 6 a.m., 8.30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4.40 p.m. Workers arriving 2 minutes late shall lose half an hour’s wages; whoever is more than 2 minutes late may not start work until after the next break, or at least shall lose his wage until then. Any disputes about the correct time shall be settled by the clock mounted above the gatekeeper’s lodge. … They shall be unconditionally accepted as it will not be possible to enter into any discussions about them.
So we have some pretty extreme penalties for arriving late. Anyone more than two minutes late is in really serious trouble and is going to lose a significant portion of his day’s wages. If there is any dispute or any sort of extenuating circumstances the worker has no means of protest. He is not even allowed to complain.

(5) Entry to the firm’s property by any but the designated gateway, and exit by any prohibited rout, e.g., by climbing fences or walls, or by crossing the Spree, shall be punished by a fine of fifteen silver groschen to the sick fund for the first offence and dismissal for the second.
Why are the entries and exits so carefully guarded? Why is access so carefully monitored? At issue here are not outsiders coming in but the workers themselves. This does not sound like a free and open place full of happy people going about their business. This sounds like an armed fort or even a prison. One assumes that the main concern was sabotage. Why would happy content workers want to damage their own place of work? Why should factory owners be afraid of their own workers?

(7) All conversation with fellow-workers is prohibited; if any worker requires information about his work, he must turn to the overseer, or to the particular fellow-worker designated for the purpose.
This rule seems designed to forestall any attempt to organize or engage in collective action. Considering the hours these workers were putting in, they would not have had any other opportunity to talk to each other about their working conditions except during work hours. What we also have here is what was probably the most common excuse to cover such actions: “I was just asking him to explain something about work.” Again, what we clearly have is a strictly controlled environment in which workers are kept under tight vigilance.

(14) Untrue allegations against superiors or officials of the concern shall lead to stern reprimand, and may lead to dismissal. …
What is the difference between an “untrue” allegation against superiors or officials and a true one, particularly when it is these same superiors and officials who get to decide? For all intents and purposes this clause really means no allegation or complaint, no matter how well based in fact, may be put forth. Anyone who does complain will be fired on the spot.

(15) Every workman is obliged to report to his superiors any acts of dishonesty or embezzlement on the part of his fellow workmen. … Conversely, anyone denouncing a thief in such a way as to allow conviction of the thief shall receive a reward of two Thaler, and, if necessary, his name shall be kept confidential. – Further, the gatekeeper and the watchman, as well as every official, are entitled to search the baskets, parcels, aprons etc. of the women and children who are taking dinners into the works, on their departure, as well as search any worker suspected of stealing any article whatever. …
What we have is a climate where workers are being asked to spy on each other. The rule of the day is complete suspicion of everyone. If this were a government we would label it as absolutely tyrannical.

(To be continued …)


Rebecca said...

All interesting regulations, to be sure, especially how they are so incredibly different from the working life we know today.

However, it seems to me that you might be reading the regulations with the intention of finding limitations to forming groups, protests, etc. Couldn't it just be your normally strict 19th century workplace? For example, Rule 5- limiting entrances- could be an attempt to make sure everyone is held to the same time clock. Can't have someone sneaking in two hours late (or even 15 minutes late) and claiming the same time as someone who entered on schedule.

Izgad said...

I grant you that the point of this lecture was to focus on methods of control. There are other things I could have discussed, maybe another time.
I would argue that if this was just about making sure that workers did not play "hooky" from work you can just post the times of their entering and leaving. If a person makes it a habit of randomly disappearing from their work station then that is a reason to discipline or fire them. A foreman could look around to see that everyone is in their place. These rules are operating on police state logic. And the same concerns apply. A police state also argues that their actions serve a purpose besides for control, that they protect.