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Hours of Work in Germany

June 27, 1899 — Industrial and Legislative Section of The International Congress of Women, Small Hall, St. Martin’s Town Hall, London, England


In this paper on the “Hours of Work” for women I must confine myself to Germany, although I know vey well that the labour problem and the question of “Hours of Work,” so closely connected with it, can be effectively considered only from an international standpoint.

According to the census of 1891 we have in Germany 2¾ millions of women who earn their living at agriculture, 1¼ millions in manufactories, and about 1½ millions more in other kinds of business. Thus we have in Germany five millions of women who are earning their living outside, and a million more who work in their houses. It is difficult to study the conditions of those who work at home; and this is the more to be regretted, as they form an important part of the labour question, and in coming years will excite more and more attention.

The hours of work for women employed in agriculture are, for the most part, beyond our observation, and the conditions of domestic service are so varied that we are not able to judge them.

Laws for the regulation of work in Germany are of recent date, and I need only refer to what has been done since 1891. The Industrial Bill of that year made the following regulations: —

1. That night work is illegal.
2. That work must stop at 8.30 p.m.
3. That work must stop at 5.30 p.m. on Saturdays and on the afternoon before holidays.
4. That women must not be employed during three or four weeks after childbirth; and
5. That women must have one hour in the middle of the day for meal-time.

We have in Germany by law an eleven hours’ maximum working day for women, and a ten hours’ maximum working day for young people if from 14 to 16 years of age. This is the law, but it is frequently evaded during the busy season.

It is interesting to know from the reports of the factory inspectors that the work done by women is not harmful if the women are allowed periods of rest during work, and if they are allowed to sit as much as possible.

Although the law can influence work in factories, it has, as yet, been unable to penetrate within the home. In the great strike in 1896 among tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses, the terrible misery in which these people largely lived was suddenly revealed in such a startling manner as to arouse the immediate sympathy of society, and it was hoped that the Government would take action, but it did not. The Trade Unions of the Social Democrats, the Evangelical and Catholic Labour Societies, the women of the Bürgerliche Frauenbewegung, all engaged in trying to better the conditions of those who work at home, have published such facts as they have discovered. It has been shown that husband, wife and children sometimes work from 14 to 17 hours daily, earning by their joint labour from 20 to 30 marks per week.

One of the most interesting developments of women’s industry in Germany is the entrance of women into trade, and the new trade law, which will come into force in 1900, makes full provision for this. Statistics for 1895 show a remarkable increase in the number of women who work as bookkeepers, cashiers, etc., in shops and warehouses — 100,000 women to 400,000 men — and of these 134,000 are under twenty years of age. This cannot fail to change greatly the conditions of family life in Germany. The hours of work for these women workers are at present irregular, and are not fixed by law; 14, 16, and even 18 hours a day are frequently required, especially from women and girls, who are more easily imposed upon.

Great efforts are being made in Berlin, notably by the Society for Shop Girls, to effect a closing of all shops at 8 o’clock in cities with a population of over 100,000, and to demand for all shop girls a rest of 1½ hours in the middle of the day. Government enacts that Sunday labour shall be limited to 2 hours in the morning (eight to ten), and two hours in the afternoon (twelve to two); but this law is often evaded. There are no inspectors, and the enforcement is in the hands of the police. The Government has just introduced a Bill insisting up a mid-day rest being given to all employees in business firms; but when the rest of from one to two hours has been fixed, there will always remain 13 hours of work, which is too much.

We may sum up the present condition of things thus: —
1. By legislative enactment the maximum working day in factories is eleven hours. The measures taken to enforce this are not effective.
2. There is no time limit for workers at home.
3. Women employed in agriculture, domestic service, in hotels, taverns, etc., are outside legal control as regards hours of labour.
4. The working day of shop girls varies from 13 to 18 hours, but the Government has introduced a Bill to limit the working hours to ten.

What we must work for may be thus summarised: —

1 .Regulated hours of labor [The International Labor Congress at Zurich in 1897 demanded that woman’s labour should be limited to eight hours a day and 44 hours a week.]
2. More protection of health.
3. More factory inspectors — especially women inspectors in factories where women’s work largely predominates.
4. Sanitary inspectors.
5. Commissions in each country to investigate the condition of working women.
6. The establishment of strong and large organisations as trade unions.
7. The establishment of an International Labour Commission.
8. The demand of an “equal wage” for “equal work.”

The great task of solving these labour problems and of making justice to triumph is laid upon humanity.

The economic independence of women will not only bring great changes in the whole economic development of each country, it will also bring many difficult questions for the women themselves to think about and answer. “How far do I belong to myself? How far to my family and my husband? How far to my work and to the world?”

These questionings will awaken bitter conflicts in the hearts of many women, but such times have necessarily to be faced and fought through.

The women’s question is an individual one, as well as a national and an international one.

Our opponents cast on us the reproach of being destroyers. Perhaps we do destroy, but destruction has to precede construction. And, besides, there are circumstances in this world which are stronger than ourselves, and we must bow to them.

Finally, my sisters, let us urge that there should be no more legislation adopted without women having a say in the matter. When we speak of “the people,” do we mean men only?

Before us lie many new social questions, and new problems demand new energies for their solution. And may we not find these energies in the women who have hitherto had no chance of co-operating?

Let us then go forward and seize every opportunity offered us of casting in our lot with those whose noble aim it is to solve these great problems.



Source: Women in Industrial Life, The Transactions of the Industrial and Legislative Section of The International Congress of Women, London, July 1899 (London: T. Fisher Unwin), 1900, pp. 14-17.