By Judy Cox
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How much has changed since the 1840s?

This article is over 18 years, 6 months old
BRITAIN IS poised to become one of the most successful 21st century nations, brags Tony Blair. But for millions of British workers life feels like it is going backwards to Victorian days, not forwards to a better future.
Issue 1886

BRITAIN IS poised to become one of the most successful 21st century nations, brags Tony Blair. But for millions of British workers life feels like it is going backwards to Victorian days, not forwards to a better future.

A recent report dubbed call centres the “dark satanic mills of the 21st century”. Low wages, poor working conditions and repetitive tasks leave workers feeling depressed and demoralised, the report says.

It’s not only call centre workers who have to endure such conditions.

Britain may be the fourth richest economy in the world. But across the board workers feel their jobs are getting harder, their hours longer, their control weaker, their humiliations greater.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about what capitalism did to workers in the mid-19th century. Things have changed since the 19th century. Workers have organised to make sure of that. But many of the things Marx and Engels wrote about find more than an echo in the lives of workers in Blair’s 21st century Britain.

“LABOUR PRODUCES marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It procures beauty, but deformity for the worker.

“It replaces labour by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labour and turns others into machines.”

  • Karl Marx, 1844

    “THE OPULENT Grill Room is still considered one of London’s finest dining rooms; the great Empire and Napoleon suite, elegantly lit by chandeliers made of Venetian glass, is favoured by those looking for a memorable party venue.

    “But while celebrities were attending glittering functions at the Cafe Royal, several floors beneath them a porter from the Ukraine was eking out a rather less glamorous existence and suffering a sad lonely death.

    “A 47 year old man was found dead two floors below ground level in a dingy, smelly rubbish room. He had been secretly living in a tiny alcove behind rubbish skips which he had boarded up with pieces of cardboard.”

  • The Guardian, 31 December 2003

    “THE WORKER feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.

    “His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced-it is forced labour. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.”

  • Karl Marx, 1844

    “THE SHIFT patterns are really rigid. You get penalised if you are a minute late off your breaks. They threaten you with disciplinaries if you are off sick. One bloke said he was going to be off because his wife went into labour. The team leader just asked when he would make the time up.

    “You are allocated four minutes for each call. Your toilet breaks are monitored. It’s how I imagine factories in the last century. It does my head in. You live for your breaks.”

  • Amy, call centre worker, Manchester, January 2004

    “FACTORY WORK exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost-it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity.

    “The special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before science, the gigantic physical forces that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the master.”

  • Karl Marx, 1844

    “THIS IS a skilled job-it used to be valued. Now we just get pushed around more and more. We have been flexible, but it’s never enough-the bosses always want to push us harder.

    “Now they spy on blokes who are off sick. But bad backs go with the job because you’re doing the same action, hour after hour, day after day.”

  • Barry, car worker, Coventry, January 2004

    “THE DRESSMAKING establishments employ an army of young girls. The only limit set to their work is the absolute physical inability to hold the needle another minute.

    “The production of precisely those articles which serve the personal adornment of the ladies of the bourgeoisie involves the saddest consequences for the health of the workers.”

  • Frederick Engels, 1844

    “SIMON JONES was decapitated by the jaws of a crane grab. He died two hours after starting work as a casual labourer at the Shoreham dockyard in April 1998.

    “Sean Currey was working next to Simon that day. He was told to hose Simon’s blood off the bags of stones he had been unloading so they could be sold. Currey was sent home with pay for refusing.”

  • The Guardian, May 2002

    “THE SOCIAL order makes family life impossible for the worker. In a comfortless, filthy house, ill-furnished, often neither raintight nor warm, no domestic comfort is possible.

    “The husband works the whole day through, perhaps also the wife and elder children, all in different places. They meet night and morning only, under perpetual temptation to drink. What family life can be possible?”

  • Frederick Engels, 1844

    “LONG WORKING, job insecurity and the increasingly ‘flexible’ labour market are making life harder for families, according to research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “The study found that one in four fathers worked more than 50 hours a week. One in four mothers worked more than 35 hours a week. But four in ten worked unsociable hours, including night work. This is an indication of ‘shift parenting’ with couples spending less time together.”

  • THE Guardian, March 2001

    “CHILDREN OF nine or ten are dragged from their squalid beds at two, three or four o’clock in the morning, then compelled to work with the merest subsistence until ten, 11 or 12 at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor.”

  • Karl Marx, 1867

    “TWO McDONALD’S restaurants in one of Britain’s wealthiest areas have been heavily fined for exploiting child workers. Ten school children, including a girl who working who worked 16 hours on a Saturday and another who worked until 2am on a school day, were found to be illegally employed in Camberley, Surrey.”

  • The Guardian, August 2001

    “A PRETTY list of diseases engendered purely by the hateful money-greed of the manufacturers! Women made unfit for childbearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, generations wrecked, purely to fill the purses of the bourgeoisie.”

  • Frederick Engels, 1844

    “ZHANG Guo Hua dropped dead in Hartlepool, after stamping the word Samsung on microwave ovens for 24 hours on end. The dead man was part of a hidden army of workers from northern China who live a grim, Third World way of life in Peter Mandelson’s constituency. Zhang’s widow did not receive any compensation, but the workers did a collection for her. Samsung have an annual turnover of $33 billion.”

  • The Guardian, January 2004

    Further reading

    Many of Marx and Engels’ writings on work and capitalism are available at

    Books or articles worth reading include The Condition of the Working Class in England by Frederick Engels, and “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation” by Judy Cox, International Socialism 79.

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