Andy McSmith: For 200 years, workers have painfully won themselves rights. Now the tide is turning

The idea that the law should protect workers who lose their jobs is quite a recent development
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The Independent Online

Issues we would now class under the heading of "workers' rights" seldom arose before the industrial revolution, when it was not considered to be within Parliament's remit to intervene in relations between landowners and those who worked the land.

But as large numbers of workers crowded into primitive factories, 19th-century politicians were occasionally spurred into action by suspicions they were being mistreated.

One of the first political incursions into industrial relations was a parliamentary investigation into textile factories in 1832. One of their witnesses was a 22-year-old who worked 14 hours on a normal day, 16 hours when business was brisk, and was beaten if he overslept. The result was the 1833 Factory Act which laid down that children under 18 could not be made to work more than 69 hours a week – 12 on weekdays and nine on Saturdays.

The first time that health and safety entered the statute book was in the 1844 Factory Act passed by the Conservative government headed by Robert Peel. As well as setting new limits on working hours, it also laid down that factory buildings had to be cleaned and made it a criminal offence not to have a barrier around dangerous machinery.

In the 1840s, Parliament banned mine owners from making women or children work underground, and in 1864, they belatedly outlawed the practice of sending boys up chimneys, a year after Charles Kingsley had published the children's classic The Water Babies, whose main character was a young chimney sweep.

These reforms were driven by middle-class reformers with social consciences. In the second half of the 19th century, workers discovered for themselves that they could force improvements in their working conditions by going on strike.

In 1871, Newcastle Upon Tyne's engineering workers won the right to a nine-hour working day, after staying out for more than four months. In 1888, a three-week strike by 1,400 mostly teenage girls forced their employers, the matchmakers Bryant & May, to abolish the system of fines and deductions from wages and equip the factory with a breakfast room.

The notion that the law should protect workers who lose their jobs is a much more recent development. The right of a long-serving employee to be compensated for being made redundant was introduced by Labour in 1965. Until then, surplus workers could be sacked without warning, and sent away without any pay.

Statutory redundancy was originally intended to be a spur to workers to change jobs, at a time when unemployment was minimal. Later it became a protection against rising unemployment, with legislation requiring employers to forewarn the government of mass redundancies and to have a consultation period.

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