Innovative Protection for Workers: the 11-hour Day and Prohibition of Child Labour

In 1877, the young Swiss Confederation passed an internationally ground breaking Factory Act. It was the first time the state intervened in freedom of contract and decreed a set of standards for the protection of workers. It limited working hours and afforded special protection to women and children.

Read on Close

In 1877, despite resistance from the industry, the electorate narrowly voted in favor of federal legislation regarding factory work – this became known as the Factory Act. This constituted the direct intervention of the Confederation in economic affairs: it curbed freedom of contract and the autonomy of industrialists. Switzerland thus became a pioneer in relation to protecting workers’ rights.

During the 1860s, non-profit groups and doctors drew attention to the topic of working conditions with their investigations revealing inadequacies in terms of fatal hazards and health risks in factories as well as the prevalence of child labor. Subsequently, the protection of factory workers’ health and productivity dominated the debate regarding the ‘social question’. The completely revised federal constitution of 1874 ultimately gave the Confederation the power to pass regulations concerning child Labour, the limitation of working hours and the protection of workers.

In many respects, the Swiss Factory Act implemented the constitutional standard built on the legislation of those cantons, which had already regulated industrial work. The canton of Zurich, for instance, had introduced restrictions to child Labour in 1815. The act passed by the canton of Glarus in 1864 led the way for the development of workers’ protection, as it regulated the employment of adults for the first time. The Swiss Factory Act limited working hours to eleven hours per day, and prohibited work at night and on Sundays. It also banned the employment of children less than 14 years of age and pregnant women a number of weeks prior to and after childbirth. It committed factory owners to adhere to provisions for the protection of workers and made them liable in the event of accidents, while inspectors monitored compliance with the law. However, it only applied to factories, but not to the many small commercial enterprises, let alone agriculture. In 1882, only 134,500 people or around 10 percent of the workforce were covered by the new legislation.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Siegenthaler Hansjörg (ed.) (1997), Wissenschaft und Wohlfahrt. Moderne Wissenschaft und ihre Träger in der Formation des schweizerischen Wohlfahrtsstaates während der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Zürich; Gruner Erich (1968), Die Arbeiter in der Schweiz im 19. Jahrhundert, Bern.