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Before the industrial revolution, most people lived in small villages and farmed or worked as craftspeople. Families spun wool, wove cloth, or sold their belongings at the market for very little money. Men, women and children often worked very hard from sunrise to sundown only to bring in scraps.

After 1750, the start of the Industrial Revolution, working conditions changed — but didn’t necessarily improve. In fact, some would argue that working conditions declined. The corruption and the neglect within big business has largely affected how the workplace has evolved over the years and developed into what it is today.

The History of Work Culture and Rights

Many people left their villages to work in mines and textile factories for 12- to 14-hour days, 6 to 7 days per week — with minor food breaks between. They worked outdoors in extreme weather conditions with machinery that required incessant maintenance and in factories that were unkempt, dangerous, and held poor lighting. It wasn’t uncommon for a worker to lose a limb from the machines or acquire a serious lung infection from the hot polluted factory air. To say that “times were hard” back then would be an understatement, compared to the working conditions of today.


Ensuring workers had rights was not a priority for many companies either. Many companies devalued workers by making most of them replaceable by anyone with working arms and legs. The wages were terribly low, and the employers would cut pay if someone came late or if business was bad. Some factory owners paid their employees with vouchers that workers trade in for goods at a store the same company owned. This gave the employer complete control of their employees’ lives and made it almost impossible to leave. When comparing the amount earned per week in shillings:

  • Men - 10

  • Women - 5

  • Children -1

with rent costing six shillings per month.


The maltreatment of employees and poor working conditions went on for over a century until the early 1900s, when a man named Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers of America, helping eliminate injustices that had plagued workers for decades. He faced some of the most powerful industries in the country, fighting for economic justice and empowerment of the poor through nonviolent means.

Work-Life Balance and Child Labor

For many women during this time, there was no “work-life balance” due to the long hours of working as an employee, and later coming home to upkeep the house and care for children. This is still prevalent today. According to Healthway, 67 percent of women with full-time jobs also take care of all household tasks, compared to the 33 percent of men that uphold the same responsibilities. In the 18th century, women had fewer rights, and most of their earnings by law had to be given to their fathers or husbands. Many factory owners preferred to hire women because they were cheaper employees.


Children were a large part of the workforce during the 1700s as well. Before the Industrial Revolution, the moment children were capable of being useful, they worked all day in the fields with their parents. Around the mid-1700s children shifted from working on farms to working in textile factories, brick yards, and coal mines — with an average lifespan of 17 years.

Then Vs. Now

Employees in the 18th century not only worried about not being compensated enough to support their families, but it was also concerning that they might lose an arm or a leg to the  machines that they worked with, or their child would be injured working in factories. Employers nowadays are held to an entirely new standard by their employees — with employees that show an “I don’t need you as much as you need me” sort of attitude. A way of thinking that started becoming more prevalent within worker unions. Many employees today now have the luxury of working from home too, handling all business transactions through the comforts of their own computer.


In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was established. This protected educational opportunities for kids, restricted the hours of employment for any child under 16, and completely prohibited children under 16 from working jobs that could pose detrimental to their health and safety. Women’s work rights and compensation have also improved. According to CNN Money, “women generally earn around 80 cents for every dollar men earn.” The fight toward equal pay for women is now getting global attention and is putting pressure on businesses to acknowledge the pay gap as a problem.


The maltreatment and the neglect employees suffered during the Industrial Revolution was the groundwork for what today’s workforce represents — and the mistakes made by both the employees and the employers of today are what will help develop the workforce for future generations.


About The Author

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.