Women and Work in the Interwar Period: Workers in the Textile Industry

by Konstantina Briola, member of the Social Issues Research Team

The interwar period in Europe (1919-1939) has been characterized as a period of intense change, both politically and socially. For the residents of European countries the biggest problem at that time was poverty along with social contradictions. Within this framework, in Greece and in other European countries (England etc.), women are starting to play a more active role in society, mainly because of their entry into the labor market.

The Textile Industry

It is a common ground that the textile sector is bringing women into the labor market, in particular to factories (English, 2013). Its development marks the process of economic and social transformation, with the emergence of key elements of the development process corresponding to Western standards (English, 2013). During the first years, the textile industry created new jobs, which did not require any specialized knowledge, making it more easily accessible to the unskilled part of the female population.

Across the globe, the majority of girls working in these sectors ranged in age from 14 to 18 years (Goldin, 2006). This can be attributed to the fact that until then the textile industry was considered immoral.

 The position of the workers

The textile workers were divided into two categories: the unskilled – which made up the majority of the workers – and the skilled (specialized) workers (Anderson, 1978). In particular, unskilled workers had the role of a supervisor within the industry, supervising both their colleagues and the whole operation.  On the other hand, the specialized staff included weavers and spinners (the ones who supervised the workers and untangled the thread from the machines).

The employers, in order to fill the position within the industry, mainly were asking for weavers, silk weavers and experienced workers. In this way, the distinction between skilled and unskilled workers became clearer, with the first category of workers being in a better position (Wood, 1997). Since the workers who were engaged in more specialized jobs, often moved from one factory to another and found better working conditions. At the same time, employers tended to prefer skilled staff to unskilled ones, because only their training time would increase costs and reduce productivity (Perrot, 1988).

 Working conditions

Admittedly, working conditions inside factories in Europe were not the most appropriate (International Labour Organization, 2016). Both the cleanliness and safety of workers were the main responsibility of the state. In Greece, from 1898 the Hellenic Ministry of Interior set up a committee, where either the Director or the Deputy Director of the police inspected the factory premises, and depending on the situation prevailing in the factory, the Ministry was taking the appropriate measures (Σαλίμπα, 2002). The state, through this process, controlled both the health conditions and the safety of the workers. Naturally, such a practice was against the interests of the capitalists-owners of the factories, since there was a possibility that they would tarnish the name of their business. Later in 1911, the Parliament introduced the law 3934 of 19-11-1911 “On the Health and Safety of Workers and on Working Hours”, in order to maintain the basic conditions of hygiene (Σαλίμπα, 2002).

As for the interior of the textiles, cleanliness lagged significantly. The factories of that time, due to the lack of a good ventilation system, the prevalence of humidity and dust in the workplace created a variety of health problems, such as diseases of the respiratory system, eyes and skin (Σαλίμπα, 2002). Cleanliness was viewed only as a privilege of the bourgeoisie. As a result, the worker having no proper hygiene conditions at home, had no requirements for more appropriate hygiene at work (Sayer, 1991). Α similar situation we find in the infrastructure of Greek society, since many cities (such as Piraeus) may have had neither running water nor aqueducts nor sewers (Σαλίμπα, 2002).  Thus, in this context, the law “On the Health and Safety of Workers and on Working Hours” may have had no application or adaptation to Greek society at all (Σαλίμπα, 2002).

 Working hours and accidents at work

Regardless of gender, all employees were required to work daily from sunrise to sunset. There will be a series of long rallies and mobilizations to reduce working hours, which was at the core of the workers’ movement (International Labor Organization, 2000). The working time of women working in the textile industry ranged between 10 and 12 hours (Σαλίμπα, 2002).   The Law 4029 of 24-1 / 7-2-1912 “On the Work of Women and Minors” encountered a number of problems in its application (Σαλίμπα, 2002). Ten-hour work was often violated because of the high accumulation of work. This breach was of course after the consent of the two parties (i.e. workers and employers), with the workers being paid extra for their overwork.

At the same time, the accidents at work were not absent from the factory. Many workers in their attempt to clean the machines that were in operation, due to the high speed of the machines, amputated their hands and crushed their fingers (Σαλίμπα, 2002). Inadequate information of the workers for the danger of these machines by those responsible for the operation led to such accidents.

However, the general public was often unaware of these accidents. Until then, there was no law on the part of the state for compensation in case of an accident at work. The only law that was enacted was that of “On the Health and Safety of Workers and on Working Hours”, which imposed precautionary covers on the wheels of machines (Σαλίμπα, 2002).  Under this law, employers could no longer claim that the accidents were due to the carelessness of the workers.

Prior to the adoption of Law 551 / 31-12-1914 “On Liability for Compensation for Accidental Workers or Employees”, there was no provision for hospital care or funeral expenses in the event of accidents at work (Σαλίμπα, 2002).  The employer relied on the frivolousness and carelessness of the worker to avoid any kind of charge.

Epilogue

From the 19th century in Europe, the spread of capitalist relations of production in Europe, the transformation of labor power into commodities and the separation of labor from place of residence brought about a substantial change in women’s labor. Indeed, women are starting to have a more active role in society, mainly because of their entrance into the labor market. However, this entry was not made with the best end prospects. The workers in various areas of industry, such as the textile industry, were widely devalued. This devaluation was expressed mainly through monetary gains, where women workers for the same hours and the same working conditions were paid less than male workers, through the lack of personal hygiene in the workplace and from the numerous work accidents.

Bibliography

Greek

[1] Σαλίμπα Ζ. (2004). Γυναίκες εργάτριες στην ελληνική βιομηχανία και στη βιοτεχνία (1870-1922).  Γενική Γραμματεία Νέας Γενιάς, Αθήνα.

[2] Perrot Μ. (1988). Η εργασία των γυναικών στην Ευρώπη: 19ος-20ος αιώνας. (μτφ. Δ. Σαμίου) Σύρος: Ερμούπολη Σύρου, Επιστημονικό και Μορφωτικό Ίδρυμα Κυκλάδων (το πρωτότυπο έργο εκδόθηκε το 1986).

English

[3] Anderson C. M. (1978). Occupational Classification in the United States Census: 1870-1940. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 9, No. 1. Available at: Here

[4] English B. (2013). Global women’s work: historical perspectives on the textile and garment Industry. Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 67-82. Available at:  Here

[5] Goldin C. (2006). The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family. AEA Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 96, No. 2. Available at:  Here

[6] International Labour Organization. (2016). Non-standard employment around the world: Understanding challenges, shaping prospects. Document and Publications Production, Geneva. Available at:  Here

[7] International Labour Organization. (2000). Labour practices in the footwear, leather, textiles and clothing industries. Report TMLFI/2000. International Labour Office, Geneva. Available at: Here

[8] Sayer D. (1991). Capitalism and Modernity: an excursus on Marx and Weber. Routledge, London. Available at:  Here

[9] Wood A. (1997). Openness and Wage Inequality in Developing Countries: The Latin American Challenge to East Asian Conventional Wisdom. World Bank Economic Review, Vol 11, No 1. Available at:  Here


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