Smoothing down the wrinkles of my ragged dress, I tied my long brown locks into a ponytail. The hair which used to be carefully tended is now greased with dried sweat; there was no point to clean when it will be just as filthy the next day. It was still dark out, but I needed to reach the city before light. Leaving a few minutes to spare, I sat down on little Ann’s bed, stroking her face. Her gentle features from sleep were suddenly disrupted by a frown. Slowly opening her eyes, she turned and met my face with a pout.
“Mummy, where are you going?”
“I’m just going out for a little while.”
She was too young to understand, too innocent to know what I go through.
“Will you be back for supper?”
“I’ll try dear, listen to Martha alright?”
As I was just about to get up, Ann tugged my hand.
Her eyes looked at me with such solemnity that I would think she understood why I had to leave her every morning; why I had to come home haggard; why I couldn’t spend time with her.
I bent down to kiss her and she rolled onto her side to sleep again. My stomach churned with doubt after her comment but I decided to ignore it. Making my way gently to the door, I was greeted by a lonely, dark, and uncertain road.
The sound of the machines filled the factory. Struggling to see through the dimness, my rough hands moved quickly along the string, tying knots along the ends. I let out a heavy cough that left my lungs shaking from the tremor; dust settled on every visible surface and the nauseating stench from the clogged sewage did no help to improve the working conditions. The air was suffocating and thick. Like hundreds of other women in here, beads of sweat rolling down our foreheads and clumps of thread clinging to our clothes marked the characteristics of a weaver.
“Mary, take over Hannah!” A voice shouted out.
“I’ll be there in a second,” I shouted equally loud.
My fingers stumbled as I tried to complete my task with back-breaking speeds, which resulted in the wood block almost crushing my fingers by mere millimeters. Rubbing my eyes in futile efforts to stay alert, I rushed over to Hannah’s. There was still another hour until my first and only meal. However till then, I can only work like the cows on a field.
But my life wasn’t always like this.
I used to sew in the comforts of my home where I could watch over Ann and husband. While he was out in the fields, I enjoyed sewing and chit-chatting with other women in my village. Helping with the income, the pieces I sewed were sold to buyers. Though we didn’t make a lot, there was always enough to get by. But peaceful days do not last. Buyers stopped giving orders, and we were left with a shortage of money. We heard that machines were finally taking over our positions, leaving manual labour useless. Then the government had ordered that all farmlands be combined into larger fields, and those willing to pay a higher price to purchase land get it. Left with no choice, my husband tried to find job opportunities in the city. He was hired as a coal miner, leaving me and Ann to stay at home. However, we soon realized that his wage was not enough to pay for the expenses of food. Twelve pounds of oatmeal were sold for 10 shillings, and his income was 12 shillings. That left me to also seek out positions as a weaver in factories.
My only hope was that little Ann would not have to suffer like I did. Working twelve hours a day, I returned home with the little energy I had complete chores.
“What are you doing?” A man’s voice boomed in my ear. “Work faster!”
Startled by his sudden outburst, my hand got caught in the web of thread. Struggling to escape, the wood block landed on my fingers. A tingling sensation passed through my hand followed by an excruciating pain running through my right arm. I let out a blood-curling scream then everything around started to spin, faster and faster. As the world darkened around me, I saw a crowd of people around.
Then everything turned black.
My reason for writing a short story is to illustrate the harsh working conditions women had to endure during the Industrial Revolution. My character, Mary, was a weaver in a factory which had poor sanitation, pitiable workplace safety, and a demanding employer. Like many other women during that period, Mary had no option but to leave her child and home to find work. With effective and productive machines replacing many hand skills, what had been a valued skill suddenly became worthless. Weavers make as much as 5-8 shillings which were not enough to cover the expenses of food. Though women played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution, they were discriminated by men because of their lack of schooling and lower apprenticeship rates. They suffered from indigestion from eating and sitting for long periods, lungs suffered from breathing in polluted air, back and side pains were very common, and the hands and feet die away from want of circulation and exercise.
Today, we may assume that such cases do not occur anymore in factories. However, according to many surveys, large companies such as Samsung, Apple, and Amazon in Asia had declined to reply to any questions related to their factory conditions. It is easy to think that only third world countries use child labour or illegal immigrants, however, in recent news and studies, China, the next biggest economic symbol in the world, have violated many labour laws; which many people assume could only happen in countries such as India or Uganda. Chinese workers receive low pay, work in a hazardous workplace, and work overtime. Likewise to the Industrial revolution, the country is booming, opening new job opportunities, but workers are suffering.
It is still difficult to say whether factories implement change in the workplace, but one thing’s for sure: employers would much rather sacrifice a few lives for the almighty dollar.