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The Good Employer - History of Employee Compensation and Benefits

A good employer offers fair employee compensation and benefits, as well as respects workers' rights. How and when did a humane, pro-labor workplace start?

A good employer is one of the forces behind a humane workplace where harmonious labor-management relations exist. Labor-friendly conditions, particularly those that involve compensation and benefits, value employee happiness and job satisfaction. How and when did a humane workplace evolve?

Early Labor Conditions: Gender Roles and Class Struggles

People during the pre-industrialization period treated the home and the workplace as a single unit, with men and women sharing tasks. However, such egalitarian arrangement changed with the rise of machines and factories.

Industrialization gave birth to stereotype gender roles and socio-economic hierarchy. Middle class men got access to paid work (PW), while women were assigned to domestic work and care giving tasks. For poor households, adult and child members labored in separate workplaces. In both classes, the quality of family life was adversely affected. On the other hand, the wealthy upper class drove the demand for industrial goods.

When wars erupted, men served in the military and the need for an alternative industrial labor supply grew. More women then were recruited in traditionally male dominated jobs, such as weaving in the Napoleonic era and shipbuilding during World War II. Consequently, as Laura K. Egendorf writes in The French Revolution (2004), PW became a domain where more women could participate; but like hired men, they were given inadequate economic rights and protections. Moreover, a 2004 study by the United States Department of Interior (USDI) shows that they would also leave the labor force after each war.

Early industrial employment conditions saw men and women workers receiving low wages, enduring long work hours, serving in hazardous job sites, and suffering from discrimination (including sexual harassment). Child labor was also prevalent. These issues led laborers to organize protests or to negotiate for just rewards and safe work environments. The workers’ strike in Philadelphia in 1827 and the bargaining of farmers with landowners in England exemplify these struggles. Such collective labor power troubled capitalists who resorted to violence with the help of military/police forces and/or through court injunctions.

In Search of the Good Employer: Helping Exploited Workers

Fortifying the need for unionism were religion and discourses on moral reform and social justice, such as Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) issued in 1891. Additionally, academic and artistic media like poems (e.g., William Blake’s The Chimney Sweeper in 1789 and Letitia Elizabeth Landon's The Factory in 1835), paintings (e.g., Vincent Van Gogh’s Woman Winding Yarn in 1885 and Käthe Kollwitz’s Poverty in 1893), and books (e.g., Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852) informed the public about the plight of the working class.

Socialists Robert Owen (1771-1858) and Charles Fourier (1772-1837) established cooperatives and independent communes or phalansteries to help their workers. Furthermore, Owen experimented with short work hours, preached about unionism, and instigated self-governing workshops. Fourier, on the other hand, vouched for equal rights for women, basic income, and “decent minimum” for those without work, thereby planting the seeds of unemployment benefit.

Pioneering humane work conditions were also set by the Price Patent Candles Company of William Wilson and Benjamin Lancaster in England in 1849. Unlike other employers who used children as workers, the boys of Price attended religious services, went to school, and enjoyed recreational activities. Night shift workers were also given free meals. Likewise, Price provided houses and other facilities (e.g., church, shop, and library). It also instituted a profit-sharing scheme in 1869, followed by an employees’ pension plan in 1893.

Toward a Humane Workplace: Forces Behind Employee Compensation and Benefits

When the International Labor Organization (ILO) was established in 1919, member-countries signed conventions that aimed “to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue in handling work-related issues.” The ILO encourages tripartism where representatives from state governments, employer organizations, and labor groups participate in consultations to identify ideal labor standards and policies. Later on, the ILO strengthened its campaign through its Decent Work Agenda (DWA). The DWA promotes fair and rights-based trade globalization to fight poverty.

Aside from compassionate employers and labor friendly political leaders, much credit in the evolution of a humane workplace goes to labor unions whose collective efforts resulted in many benefits for men and women workers in general. Through gaining political and legislative leverage, they successfully asserted their right to organize and collectively bargain for better work conditions. These include reduced work hours, wage increases, grievance and arbitration procedures, provisions for occupational safety and health, paid vacation and sick leaves, death and medical benefits, retirement pensions, and non-discriminatory policies on gender, religion, age, and race, among others.

Other sources

Author(s) unknown. n.d. The Social Impact of Industrialization. (accessed February 23, 2008).

Cunliffe, John and Erreygers, Guido. 2001. “The Enigmatic Legacy of Charles Fourier and Basic Income” in History of Political Economy. North Carolina: Duke University Press 2001. (accessed February 20, 2008).

International Labor Organization. 2000. About ILO. (accessed February 24, 2008).

McKernan, Anne. 1994. “War, Gender, and Industrial Innovation: Recruiting Women Weavers in Early Nineteenth-century Ireland” in Journal of Social History. Virginia: George Mason University Press. (accessed February 23, 2008).

Murphy, Teresa Anne. 1992. Ten Hours’ Labor: Religion, Reform, and Gender in Early New England. New York: Cornell University Press. (accessed February 21, 2008).

Sibal, Jorge V.; Amante, Maragtas S.V.; and Tolentino, Ma. Catalina. 2007. "Globalization and Changes in Work and Employment Conditions in the Philippines." ILO.

Written by Leann Zarah (

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