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Pay and Working Conditions in 19th Century France

Ravi Chirravuri

    In examining the pay and working conditions of 19th Century workers in France, one must be aware of the great diversity in the types of occupations that existed at the time. Mark Traugott’s anthology, The French Worker: Autobiographies from the Early Industrial Era clearly delineates this great variety. From the accounts of Norbert Truquin’s intense poverty to Martin Nadaud’s good fortune, the experience of French workers was varied and different.

    Payment in 19th century France was based on many different factors. Level of skill, gender, and workers' associations were three factors that played a very important role in deciding a worker’s pay. Level of skill was very important, as there was a major difference between skilled and unskilled workers. Bédé, Nadaud, and Perdiguier were skilled workers who were treated well because their occupations were unique and essential. However, even skilled workers were not well paid and could not earn enough to rise to a higher social level. In contrast, Truquin, an unskilled, illiterate laborer had to settle for extremely difficult manual labor in order to make ends meet. Intense gender discrimination also played an important role in these times. Working women were almost always paid significantly less than men. The final factor that appeared to make a difference in pay was associations. Perdiguier’s connections with the compagnonnage (worker groups that offered an identity to skilled workers) society and Bédé’s affiliation with the Mutual Aid Society (group that provided support to members in case of sickness and injury) were key in maintaining their positions in society and receiving adequate compensation for their work (69).

    In studying working conditions of 19th century France, it is once again apparent that there exists a great disparity in how people perceived their situation. Bédé describes the "…workers’ exposure to terrible injuries, including broken arms and legs" when they were required to moved giant hunks of wood which were used for his profession (69). Many workers labored in dangerous conditions that were detrimental to their health. In reading all the autobiographies, the workdays were also very long. Most workers began their day at around 5 AM and usually finished around 8 or 9 PM with an hour break for lunch (136).

    There is a strong correlation once again between level of skill, gender, and associations when considering working conditions. The higher the skill of a worker, the more indispensable he became to the employer and thus the employer would take care not to abuse his workers. On the other hand, unskilled laborers such as Truquin had to put up with long hours and dangerous working conditions because they were easily replaceable. In relation to gender, though women often worked the same hours as men, they were often confined to housework but many worked in factories in deplorable conditions. Therefore, women were often less exposed to dangerous working conditions. Associations also played an important role in a worker’s life, as Bédé and Perdiguier indicate. Both were part of groups that could put pressure on employers not to mistreat their workers.

    In conclusion, there is no one way of describing the pay and working conditions in 19th century France. However, it is clear that workers lives in 19th century France were very difficult due to long hours and low pay and the chance of advancing economically and socially was very limited.



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