The World of Work

In 1904, workers were subject to a longer working day and a longer working week, far less holidays and far less comfortable working environments than is the norm for Ireland in 2004.

In some cases workers were expected to work up to 100 hours a week, though the standard week was around 60 hours. Employees had much less rights, as legislation enshrining these rights and such concepts as established holidays and minimum wages had yet to be enacted.

In Dublin, for example, the vast majority of male workers had jobs as casual labourers and messengers, employed or laid off at will. There was never enough work for everyone and in 1904, the employment situation was so bad that the unemployed marched to City Hall in July in protest at the lack of work. The Lord Mayor, Joseph Hutchinson, called a special emergency meeting of the Corporation in December, in order to examine "the best means of alleviating the distress at present existing in the city owing to the want of employment." The Corporation decided to bring forward its Municipal Works programme in order to create more jobs and the Irish Times set up a special shilling relief fund for the distressed of Dublin over that Christmas.

At the other end of the spectrum, emphasising a prevailing system of class distinction, directorships of companies were made available through family connections, shared schooldays at one of the private schools or membership of the same clubs. The principal of open competition was only beginning to be recognised.

Workers tended to work close to their homes, although in many cases the citizens of the city of Dublin travelled out to the townships of Pembroke and Rathmines in order to earn their living as domestic servants. Those engaged as domestics usually had Sunday off and a half-holiday on Saturday, but for the rest of the time they were at the mercy of their employer.

Salaries were lower in Ireland than in Britain; wages for a "Good Plain Cook" was around 20 shillings a week, which was also about the average for an unskilled male worker; a skilled worker such as a printer could earn closer to 35 shillings a week. Shop girls could be paid as little as 7 shillings a week. However, the movement towards unionisation had already begun, especially in the industrial parts of the north.

The movement grew, with the ITGWU founded in 1909, though it was to encounter a major defeat with the Great Lock Out of 1913. But many workers felt they had no chance of employment in Ireland and left the country for England and America, a trend that had begun with the Great Famine and that was really only reversed in the 1990s.

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