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Work in the UK (Part Two)

To understand the crucial nature of the rights workers hold in Britain today, it is important to look back over the past three hundred years to see how they developed.

During this special two-part edition of Life in the UK, we have already outlined the basic rights of workers in contemporary Britain. This week, we'll take a closer look at the history of labour laws, and how they paved the way for the rights we enjoy today.

To kick off this week's blog, watch our very own Emily Ingram - labour historian, video game enthusiast and Life in The UK editor - as she describes what it was like to work in the Britain hundreds of years ago.

What happened after the industrial revolution?

After details of Hobhouse's Bill was published, large numbers of workers began to spontaneously form 'Short Time Committees', placing pressure on Parliament to reduce work hours across industry. Pressure groups like these would later evolve into the large, industry-specific trade unions as we recognise them today, leading to the formation of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) in Manchester in 1868.

As workers became more informed and organised, the number of unions increased and further pressure was placed on parliament to pass work-related laws.

By 1847, all young people (under 18) and women working in the textile industry were strictly limited to a 10-hour work day. This gave young mothers more of an opportunity to care for their children, whilst affording young people of the working class further opportunities to attend school outside of work.

Later, in 1864, The Factory Act extended the regulations to all factories (rather than just textiles, which was the largest and most significant industry of the time) and coal mines.

What rights were won in the 20th Century?

Between 1888 and 1918, Britain's trade unions grew at a significant rate. The membership figure stood at roughly 750,000 at the beginning of the period, rising to six and a half million after the first world war.

There were a number of prolific strikes that inspired this Trade Union boom. The first was the Match Worker's strike of 1888: the dispute involved hundreds female match-makers, all of whom worked at a factory in East London under incredibly poor and unregulated conditions. The outcome of the strike led to the company in question, Bryant and May, prohibiting the use of white phosphorous (a dangerous and, for many, lethal substance) in match production.

As the century progressed, further work-related rights were won with help from the unions:

  • In 1963, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan introduced the Contracts of Employment Act, which required employers to provide workers with a minimum period of notice when terminating their contracts

  • In 1970, The Equal pay act, in which men and women were afforded 'equal pay for equal work' was introduced. This was largely due to a spate of strikes by female factory workers, such as those portrayed within the 2010 film Made in Dagenham

  • Finally, the National Minimum Wage was introduced in 1999.

Today, the TUC is still in operation. Trade Unions continue to be popular with large groups of workers, ensuring that they are secure and protected in their jobs.

By Kaihsu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
TUC, By Kaihsu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Not only that, but dozens of new laws have been put in place to protect the rights of men, women and young people at work - as we examined in last week's blog.

In 2020 Britain, the average workplace is simply unrecognisable from the dingy factories and dangerous cotton mills of the 18th and 19th centuries. For that, we're sure every worker is eternally grateful!

For more information on what it's like to live & work in the UK, or to apply for work-related visas, book a consultation with us today.

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