You are currently viewing The Evolution of Wage Labor in France (1830-1939): Balancing Workers’ Rights and Economic Demands

The Evolution of Wage Labor in France (1830-1939): Balancing Workers’ Rights and Economic Demands

Wage labor, a social construct deeply intertwined with France’s industrial history, underwent significant transformations between 1830 and 1939. These shifts greatly influenced workers’ conditions and health. Let’s delve into this rich past to better understand our present.

Estimated reading time : 3 minutes

The term “wage” comes from the Latin salarium, referring to the salt ration given to soldiers of the Roman Empire. Historically, wages were allocated to mechanical activities, viewed as less noble than the liberal arts, which long cast a negative shadow on the term.

Until 1906, the concept of labor in France was primarily regulated by the Civil Code of 1804, treating labor as a commodity. It was with the creation of the Labor Code in 1906 that this perspective shifted, placing the human being at the center of concerns.

The Le Chapelier law of 1791 had already paved the way by abolishing corporations and asserting the principle of freedom of labor. The 19th century is marked by a perspective of contractualizing labor, where the worker is seen as a merchant of his own labor.

The 19th century witnessed the emergence of work organization models. On one hand, large companies formed, driven by Saint-Simon’s supporters, and on the other, social movements inspired by Proudhon sought to establish social justice.

Taylorism, emerging in the 20th century, profoundly transformed work management. However, the law found balance by establishing employer’s civil liability in case of accidents. This instituted a new relationship: the employer takes care of his employee in exchange for their subordination.

Legislative milestones 

Several laws shaped the work landscape:

  • 1841: First restrictions on child labor.
  • 1892: Enhanced protection for women and children at work.
  • 1900-1936: Progressive reduction of the weekly working hours.

Moreover, the interwar period saw significant advancements with the introduction of collective agreements in 1919 and the Matignon agreements in 1936. During this period, women’s wage labor also grew, notably in the armament sector during World War I.

In Conclusion:

The evolution of wage labor in France between 1830 and 1939 reflects a continuous quest for balance between workers’ rights and economic imperatives. These shifts, deeply rooted in French history, laid the foundation for today’s working conditions and occupational health. Understanding this history is vital to keep advancing towards a more equitable and healthy work environment for all.

Philippe Casanova

Specialist in occupational medicine and forensic medicine.