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Published 03July2002  by "Knack" Magazine
Original Article by Misjoe Verleyen
(The weaving industry in the 1850s) 
Translation by Ed Blomme Nov2003

 

p. 88-... "...The downtrend really began when in 1830 the new Belgium was created. In one blow the country lost the markets of The Netherlands, and the Dutch colonies. Although the new Constitution looked like the most liberal of its time, the liberal ideas in reality were an economic disaster. Belgium contracted business agreements whereby custom duties were reduced or eliminated. England was at that time the leading industrial nation, and through far-reaching mechanization, they produced more cheaply, and took over the Flemish markets.  That meant unemployment, and of assistance other than charity, there was no discussion...The beginning mechanization eliminated many home workers. In 1833 the first rural flax spinning factories made a half million unemployed.  Ten years later one small steam machine of 100 hp employed 750 workers. But they spun as much thread as 200.000 home spinners... 

          The life expectancy at birth was 35 years, or lower than today in Sierra Leone. Of a thousand children, twenty died before age five...Eight of the hundred women giving birth died at delivery; which is higher than today in Tadzhikstan. 

Such numbers are indicative of poor nutrition, bad housing and bad medical care. It could not be otherwise: almost half the work population - counted from age ten – was regularly unemployed. Those who did work, put in 70 hours. A workers family of six had to make do for a year with 780 francs. Equated on the basis of food prices, that amounts to 464 modern euros per year, or some 90 euros per week ($13.5 Can. or $10 US). That is for six people in a family where the children worked. 

The figures for child labor are very incomplete. From other Statistics, we know that not 45% of children under ten ever went to school. For men twenty percent could read and write, and for women that was ten percent. Those figures are lower than Afghanistan after the Taliban were driven out. 

No wonder all medical reports speak of labor children who are "thin and shrunk, show sclerosis, swollen glands and rickets. The muscles are hardly developed, the belly is swollen, digestion is difficult, and is accompanied by sour regurgitations. The child complains about headaches, bellyaches and intestinal colic. It grows slowly and irregularly, and the final height is below average."...Children and adults were short on calcium, egg white and vitamin D. Lung diseases were daily occurrences, and epidemics like typhus and cholera regularly wiped out the weakest. 

...Communities demanded police reinforcements to control the mass of beggars and vagrants; because the citizenry was scared due to the "scum" regularly revolted against the protectionist measures demanded by the factory owners. 

Working conditions demanded investigation.  There were investigations that now give us a view of the terrible work conditions.  Ironic detail: many of these reports were made by the owner himself "on his word of honor".  Thus, we read that "the workplace is warmed because cotton requires a temperature of eighteen degrees", and that" accidents only happen to drunk or inattentive workers."  The reports  and descriptions paint a picture of disturbing hard labor, noisy workplaces, many accidents, punishments and fines for, "having eaten a sandwich, was laughing, was looking."  Workdays of 14 hours were not exceptional. Sunday rest only meant that for that day no pay was given. The unpaid midday break was short, and many a time non-existent. 

Wet Continus ~ About one thing everyone agreed: the treatment of flax was especially unhealthy.  Carding produced  an enormous amount of dust so "many people got dust lung". Spinning occurred in a hellish temperature.  The raw flaw was pulled through a bath of seventy degrees to remove the pectin to make the thread thinner.  The new machines, the so-called "wet continus", had not stolen their name. Through ingenious techniques, they were capable to do all work between raw cotton wick and thread continuously, as long as the thread remained springy and wet enough.  The hot water produced clouds of steam, and the female workers were sprayed by the condensed water that leaked from the ceilings. After work, they went home soaking wet.  Women especially were chosen for work because they were handier, and had to be paid less, thus increasing the mortality of women and babies, as everyone knew. The song "Het Continusmeisje” (The Girl of the Continus) of the Ghent singer Henri van Daele (1877-1957) describes it this way: 

“We spinners of the flax factory/Are quickly cripple, pale and sick/We're only slaves/By stinking water overrun/Often cancer gets us/A glowing child we don't expect/More often just a little corpse." 

Everyone also knew that wages were reduced.  Workers were played out against each other. Each spinner had three or four helpers. They had to retie broken thread, sweep up the dust from under the machines, remove the full spools and replace them with empty ones (see photo). The spinner had to pay them her/himself, so it was thus important to keep their wages as low as possible -- preferably a child that did not have to be paid as much as an adult. Catholic and liberal politicians thus were right to claim that parents wanted their children to go to the factory. That was the only way to survive. 

The nineteenth century stayed a century of crises: between 1830 and 1900 one year in four was a year of crisis.  Catholics and liberals supported one  another to maintain the status quo and that meant that the labor force were surrendered to  wage cuts, lock-outs, dirty, underpaid work and hunger.  Only at the end of the century would there be slow change. The emergence of unions, co-operatives, credit unions...brought a beginning to a better life. Each famine produced a revolt, each revolt required social change. There came an end to the crudest abuses: wages were no longer permitted to be paid out in the pubs, workers could no longer be forced to shop (expensively) only in owners’ stores. And especially the "truck system" was prohibited. Under that system the worker was partially paid in useless goods, that he sold back immediately to the boss at reduced prices. Only to get them back the next week as part of his/her wages... 

The introduction of the general right to vote brought workers as representatives to parliament, and they would introduce social legislation that would take almost twenty years... 

* End of Translation by Ed Blomme *
[mokke@sympatico.ca]

 

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