Conditions of factory workers in late 19th century Russia (1885)

Between 1882 and 1885, Russian officials carried out a series of visits and inspections of industrial factories and worker housing. The following document is one of several hundred reports later filed by these inspectors. It describes the poor conditions in factory-provided housing and, toward the end, the exploitation of factory workers:

“…Sanitary conditions in the workers’ settlement of Yuzovka are highly conducive to the contraction and spread of disease. The market place and streets are full of filth. The air is rotten with the stench from factory smoke, coal and lime dust and the filth in gutters and organic wastes on streets and squares.

The interiors of most workers’ living quarters are just as unhygienic… Petty clerks and some skilled workers live in shacks. These are long buildings divided into several large and small sections. Inside, they are extremely dirty and crowded with tenants.

The majority of workers live in so-called cabins built in the outskirts of the settlement, along the river Kalmius. These cabins are simply low, ugly mud huts. The roofs are made of earth and rubbish. Some of them are so close to the ground that at first sight, they are nearly unnoticeable. The walls are covered with wood planks or overlaid with stones which easily let in the dampness. The floors are made of earth.

These huts are entered by going deep down into the ground along earthen stairs. The interiors are dark and close, and the air is damp, still, and foul-smelling. The cabins are untidy and far more unsightly than the shacks. The furnishings are completely unhygienic, although frequently the workers live here with their families and infant children…

The buildings used for workers’ quarters at Moscow factories are either the open, barrack type or are partitioned into small individual compartments… Bachelors are always housed in barracks but some married workers may live there too if space is limited. Most of the married workers have their own rooms. However, this division is not strictly observed in a considerable number of factories. Married men are indeed separated from single men and women sometimes but the rule is rather an undifferentiated mixture of sexes and ages, so that all sleep in one and the same barracks, or are thrown together indiscriminately into the compartments…

In either type of housing, the furnishings are always very plain: generally, there are rows upon rows of largely bare plank beds, occasionally iron ones… The workers are required to furnish their own bedding, so most of them sleep in their own sheepskin coats or in tunics…

In Factory No. 45, the workers live in a basement, where the air is extremely musty and damp. Instead of beds, loose boards are laid across wooden sawhorses. Three men sleep on such a “bed.”…

Factory No. 109 is still worse: the workers are given straw mattresses, but ten kopecks a month is deducted from their pay as rental. A worker who lives there one year pays the employer far more than the cost of the mattress. Yet after he leaves, the mattress remains the employer’s property and is rented out to another worker…”