By Joe Jones
June 19 2020
The Covid pandemic has prompted widespread calls to rethink how we work, with many countries and businesses now considering a shorter, more flexible working week. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has advocated a 4-day week in response to economic recession. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter have also declared their support for working time reduction and more flexible working conditions.
In my current research with Autonomy, I am investigating historical lessons for working time reduction in the UK. The first struggles over working time in the 19th century reveal that short-term concessions by the elite in response to economic recession can quickly be rolled back once the economy has recovered. Political struggles over the First Factory Act of 1802, and the subsequent 10-hour-movement during the mid-19th century, show us that we cannot take for granted that any gains made during the crisis might not be wound back when a more favourable economic landscape emerges. It took vigilance, organisation, and determination from the labour movement to ensure that the working time reduction achieved during the economic recession in 1840 was protected. Within three years of the 10-hour-movement’s victory in 1847, the working week was being extended again. While these initial events took place between 150 and 200 years ago, the struggles undertaken by activists at the time present important lessons for the current campaigns for working time reduction.
Trends in Working Time Reduction
The working week is often considered to have gradually decreased over time, but has plateaued in recent years. The trend is more disjointed, however, with significant improvements being made during times of great economic crisis and war. For example, a 30-hour working week was proposed to combat the 1920s-30s Great Depression in the USA. In his 2019 PEF report, How to Achieve Shorter Working Hours, Lord Skidelsky presents the following graph that demonstrates the incremental progress made in reducing working hours in the UK over the past 160 years.
As the above graph demonstrates, a sharp and long lasting reduction in UK working hours occurred after World War One and another significant decrease occurred following WW2. Similarly, over the period of peak Fordist production, 1956-1980, the working day in the manufacturing industry decreased by an average of 2 hours in the US. Elsewhere, working time was also reduced during the 2008/9 global financial crisis as one method to combat the economic downturn in Germany and the Netherlands.
However, history shows that what often accompanies periods of reduction in economic recession is a move to increase working hours when the economy recovers. Reductions in working time achieved during recessions therefore require vigilance and organisation on the part of labour movements to ensure that they remain intact when the economy recovers. There are two key moments in the 19th century struggle over labour time that demonstrate this danger, which may help shed light on the challenges facing workers today.
The First Factory Act, 1802
The first restriction of working time in a (textile) factory in the UK was passed in 1802, and was entitled the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. The act was in response to the outbreak of a contagious disease in a Radcliffe factory. Doctors had inspected the unsanitary and dangerous conditions and recommended a reduction of working hours for the children at the factory:
We earnestly recommend a longer recess from labour at noon and a more early dismission from it in the evening, to all those who work in the cotton mills; but we deem this indulgence essential to the present health and future capacity for labour, for those who are under the age of fourteen; for the active recreations of childhood and youth are necessary to the growth, the vigour and the right conformation of the human body.
Despite being recommended for all workers in the textile mills, the resulting 1802 Factory Act only applied to indentured child apprentices. Given the narrow scope of the legislation, it was largely ineffective and wasn’t properly enforced.
The significance of the first Factory Act was that it began the campaign for shorter, regulated work and led to over 15 further pieces of legislation between 1802 and 1847. These were proposed predominately by philanthropic mill owners and politicians, all of which extended or augmented the original stipulations of the first Factory Act (no working after 9pm, a 12 hours daily maximum for apprentices and ‘free’ children, a minimum working age of 9 etc.). The idea that overwork was a danger to health and wellbeing was generally accepted at the time, but the implementation of these Acts was problematic: while the situation of working time reduction today is by no means synonymous with the 19th Century, the breakdown between the commonly understood notion that overwork is detrimental to workers and the actual realisation of legislation to combat it remains to some degree. The Acts passed in the early 19th Century had the force of philanthropic elites pushing them, but for the movement to garner real momentum, an organised labour presence was required.
The 10-Hour Movement and the 1847 Factory Act
While these early acts lacked the direct involvement of labour movements, the 1830s and 40s saw public and labour support for a 10-hour day. “Short time committees” were established, predominately in the north of England, Scotland, and Southern Wales. They were partly fuelled by Richard Oastler’s newspaper publications, entitled “Yorkshire Slavery,” and a general acceptance that overly long working hours were not a moral good that reduced idleness and immorality, as was previously believed, but were rather a health risk, for children and adults alike.
Between 1802 and 1847, it was argued by some that factories couldn’t survive without the extra 2 hours of work that a 12-hour day provided. In the mid-1840s, however, this was proved to be false: a depression in trade, and a resulting economic recession, had occurred due to the European Potato Famine, and many factories were operating on shorter operating hours anyway. The Short Time Committees took this as a signal that reduced working time could be established as standard, and there was, surprisingly, little resistance in Parliament.
The economic recession in the 1840s allowed the establishment of a 10-hour day for textile workers with the passing of the 1847 Factory Act, and the labour movement declared it a victory. However, the economy began to recover, and by 1850 a further Bill was passed, often referred to as The Compromise Act, that increased the working day to 10.5 hours. Additionally, employers began “nibbling” extra time at the beginning and end of shifts, increasing the working day further. This led Friedrich Engels to declare that “the workers of England have suffered a significant defeat… the main provisions of the Ten Hours’ Bill enacted in 1847 are as good as abolished.”
Working Time Reduction After Covid?
Despite labour achieving a significant victory in 1847, the return of economic growth and prosperity allowed old habits to return, and the working day to become longer again, perpetuating the same struggle until 1874, when the 10-hour was legally established with some permanence.
In today’s Covid-19 crisis, we might be facing a similar situation. It seems highly likely that in-work flexibility – including working from home – will become part of the ‘new normal’ for many jobs in the UK. This disruption to business as usual is also accelerating the conversation around working time. Organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute are suggesting that as part of the process of getting the workforce back on the job, a ‘Four Days On, Ten Days Off’ model might be appropriate. If we are to to take a lesson from history, it is that a reduction in work hours must be supported by labour movements as permanent and solid alterations to the landscape of work, rather than gifts beneficially passed down or advocated by benevolent and philanthropic government and business leaders, no matter how genuine their intentions.
 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “To Safely Reopen, Make the Workweek Shorter. Then Keep It Shorter,” The Atlantic 30 April 2020. Accessed at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/safely-reopen-make-workweek-shorter/610906/
 Eleanore Ainge Roy, “Jacinda Ardern flags four-day working week as way to rebuild New Zealand after Covid-19,” The Guardian, 20 May 2020. Accessed at
 Kate Conger, “Facebook Starts Planning for Permanent Remote Workers,” New York Times, 21 May 2020. Accessed at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/technology/facebook-remote-work-coronavirus.html
 Kari Paul, “Twitter announces employees will be allowed to work from home ‘forever’,” The Guardian, 12 May 2020. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/may/12/twitter-coronavirus-covid19-work-from-home
 Hunnicutt (1990), p. 147-157.
 Rones (1981), p. 5.
 Tijdens et al (2014), p. 167.
 Hutchins and Harrison (1911), p. 8.
 Hutchins and Harrison (1911), p. 70.
 Ibid. p. 112.
 Engels  (2010), p. 288.
Conger, Kate; “Facebook Starts Planning for Permanent Remote Workers,” New York Times, 21 May 2020. Accessed at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/technology/facebook-remote-work-coronavirus.html
De Spiegelaere, Stan, and Piasna, Agnieszka; The Why and How of Working Time Reduction (ETUI, 2017)
Engels, Friedrich; The English Ten Hours’ Bill, from Marx & Engels Collected Works, Volume 10 (Lawrence & Wishart, 2010)
Hunnicutt, Benjamin; Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (1988) (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990)
Hutchins, B. L., and Harrison, A.; A History of Factory Legislation (London: P. S. King & Son, 1911)
Lee, Sangheon; McCann, Deirdre; Messender, Jon. C.L; Working Time Around the World: Trends in Working Hours, Laws, and Policies in a Global Comparative Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2007)
Paul, Kari; “Twitter announces employees will be allowed to work from home ‘forever’,” The Guardian, 12 May 2020. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/may/12/twitter-coronavirus-covid19-work-from-home
Rones, Phillip L.; Response to Recession: Reduce Hours or Jobs?, in Monthly Labour Review, Vol. 104, No. 10 (October 1981)
Roy, Eleanore Ainge; “Jacinda Ardern flags four-day working week as way to rebuild New Zealand after Covid-19,” The Guardian, 20 May 2020. Accessed at:
Skidelsky, R; How to Achieve Shorter Working Hours (PEF Report, 2019)
Soojung-Kim Pang, Alex; “To Safely Reopen, Make the Workweek Shorter. Then Keep It Shorter,” The Atlantic 30 April 2020. Accessed at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/safely-reopen-make-workweek-shorter/610906/
Tijdens, Kea; van Klaveren, Maarten; Bispinck, Reinhard; and Öz, Fikret: Wage and Workforce Adjustments in the Economic Crisis in Germany and the Netherlands, in European Journal of Industrial Relations (2014) Vol. 20(2)
Joe Jones is a doctoral researcher in the Philosophy department at the University of Kent. His research focuses on the philosophical implications of automation, and explores possible applications of the writings of Hannah Arendt to the future of work. As part of his partnership with Autonomy, Joe will be researching the social, political and economic history of working time reduction in the UK.