Working hours is the period of time that an individual spends at paid work. Time spent doing unpaid work such as housework or caring for children is not considered part of working hours. The maximum numbers of working hours a week is regulated by law in many countries, and this sometimes stipulates daily rest periods, and the rest period between each day of work.
With the industrial revolution, work ceased to be seasonal and limited by daylight hours, as it had in the past. Factory owners were reluctant to leave their machinery idle, and in the 19th century, it was common for working hours to be between 14-16 hours a day, 6 days a week. These long hours were enforced by factory owners keen to maximize their profits. Even children worked long hours in the textile factories, mines and as domestic helps in houses of the wealthy.
Reformers took up the issue of the working hours from the end of the 18th century onwards. Their campaigns resulted in the passage of legislation in 1802 and 1819 regulating the working hours of children in workhouses and textile factories to 12 hours a day. However, this legislation was largely ineffective, as there were no mechanisms in place for inspecting factories and punishing factory owners who flouted the law. Over the next decades, there were further pieces of legislation restricting the working hours of children. The limits set by the regulations were not necessarily followed in the short term, however, legal reforms did have an impact on workers’ conditions over a period of time.
In 1833, the Factory Act banned children under 9 from working in the textile industry, and the working hours of 10-13 year olds was limited to 48 hours a week, while 14-18 year olds were limited to 69 hours a week, and 12 hours a day. Government factory inspectors were appointed to enforce the law.
Extract from the Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, 1851: “Information was last winter given to Mr. Jones, on which he could perfectly rely, that it was the regular practice in Mr. Bracewell's mill to begin work, with young persons and women, at half-past five in the morning; but he was told at the same time that his coming by the usual road to Colne would be of no use, because arrangements had been made by which information was given as soon as an Inspector appeared within some miles of the factory. Mr. Jones, determined that so gross a violation of the law should, if possible, be checked, took very effective steps to ascertain the correctness of the charges, by going in the night by a circuitous route, accompanied by police officers, and arriving in the neighbourhood of the mill at five in the morning. Soon afterwards the lights appeared in the windows, and on entering the mill, a little after half-past five, he found the machinery in full operation, with young persons and women at work. Some made their escape, fearing no doubt, by past experience, the consequences of being produced as evidence, but he got the names and addresses of several.”
However, only four inspectors were expected to cover all of England, and this law only applied to the textile industry. The industries not covered included iron and coal mines, gas works, shipyards, construction, match factories, nail factories, and the business of chimney sweeping. Over the next few years, there were further pieces of legislation, which by 1847 limited working hours for all children under 18 and for women working in the textile industry to 10 hours a day. The 1864 Factory Act extended the regulations to factories other than textiles and coal mines.
During the early years of the 20th century, trade unions and reformers continued to draw attention to the social and health costs of long hours and the economic value of leisure. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the eight-hour day and the 48-hour week became an important issue for workers and trade unions. This issue came to prominence in other industrialised countries during this period. In 1919, the International Labour Organisation in its first convention, the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention (No. 1), recommended maximum working hours of ‘eight hours a day and 48 hours a week’.
As a result of the campaigning around this issue, The Factories Act 1937 limited the working hours of women and young people (under 18) to no more than 9 on any day and 48 in any week. The hours of adult men still remained unregulated.
It is interesting that more than 90 years after the first ILO convention on working hours, the ideal of a maximum of 48 working hours a week has not been completely realised even in some industrialised countries of the world today. The European Union has agreed directives to limit working hours, but these have long been opposed by the UK government.
The European Union Working Time Directive was introduced in 1993 to work alongside member states’ employment laws. It puts a limit on the number of hours that should be worked each week and specifies how long breaks should be, as well as regulates night-time working.
Under this directive, employees have the right to:
- A maximum working week of 48 hours;
- A rest period of 11 consecutive hours a day;
- A rest break when the working day is longer than six hours;
- A minimum of one rest day per week;
- The statutory right to four weeks' holiday.
This directive allows EU member states to opt out of the directive, and the UK is the only country to make widespread use of the opt-out provisions. Employees can formally agree to waive their right to work a maximum of 48 hours a week, and a refusal to do so cannot entail negative consequences. Since 2006, the opt-out is capped at 60 hours but the hours worked is calculated over a 3 month period - hence a worker can work over 60 hours for short periods of time.
The limit to working hours does not apply to some categories of workers including managing executives with control over their decisions, workers in the armed forces, emergency services, domestic workers in a private household and police (in some circumstances). Workers who can’t opt out include workers in the road transport industry, eg delivery drivers, workers on ships or boats and airline staff.
Given Britain’s opt out from the EU directive, British workers have limited legal mechanisms to enforce the 48 hour limit to the working week. Workers can face explicit pressure to work longer, and often the culture of the workplace can implicitly contribute to long working hours so that employers may only reward those who put in long hours at work through promotions and bonuses. This often makes it difficult for workers to limit their working hours.
There is also a link between wages and hours of work, which affects the working hours of those who are low paid. Workers who are paid at the minimum wage or sometimes below the minimum wage are often forced to work long hours, and sometimes in two or three jobs simultaneously, to earn enough to meet their essential needs.