The Quaker testimonies of Equality and Integrity led early Quakers, many of whom were farmers and artisans, to treat their employees well. They led William Penn to ensure that men and women were not denied access to work through corrupt practices, and that workers were not overburdened with unfair taxes. These beliefs also led Quakers to take a stand against slavery.
These same principles influenced many Quaker employers. As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in Britain in the 18th century, the Darbys and Reynolds built large ironworks at Coalbrookdale. They provided cottages and access to country walks for their employees, and were concerned for their general welfare.
Many other workers were not so fortunate, and even in the 19th century, conditions in most factories were still dirty and dangerous, with long working hours and no welfare provision.
When George and Richard Cadbury moved their factory from the unhealthy environment in Birmingham to Bournville in 1879, their aim was to demonstrate that a pleasant working environment was both achievable and good for society as a whole. The new factory included heated dressing rooms, kitchens to provide hot food, gardens, sports fields and even a swimming pool. The company negotiated special rail fares for their workers. In 1895, they bought 120 acres at Bournville to provide affordable housing for poorer wage earners. Around 1900, medical and dental services were established. A Pension Fund was started in 1906.
They also pioneered other workers’ benefits - the Saturday half-day holiday, bank holidays, and democratically elected Works Councils to deal with working conditions, health, safety, education, training, and the social life of the workers.
The Rowntree family were also concerned with the impact of poverty. In 1863, Joseph Rowntree produced a study on the links between crime and poverty. In 1901, his son Seebohm wrote Poverty: a study of town life, a study of the overcrowded living conditions of the working classes in York.
In 1901, Joseph Rowntree brought 123 acres of land at New Earswick to build houses for both workers and managers. "I do not want to establish communities bearing the stamp of charity,” he wrote, “but rather of rightly ordered and self governing communities". 110 houses were built with gardens, and four shops. At Joseph Rowntree's insistence, each garden was planted with an apple tree and a pear tree, so tenants could enjoy fresh fruit.
Rowntree established a library in his factory and employed a social welfare officer, a doctor and a dentist to provide a free service for his workers. For those under seventeen, there was free education too. In 1906, he donated £10,000 to establish a Pension Fund for his workers.
Not all Quaker enterprises were so worthy, however. Bryant and May, who made matches at a factory in London, were heavily criticised for the way in which they treated their workers, and the unhealthy and dangerous working conditions they experienced.
Today, like their counterparts in Victorian England, many workers, particularly in developing countries, still have little choice but to work long hours in poor conditions. Often pay is very low and in some cases workers exist in situations akin to slavery. QUNO has worked with both the World Trade Organisation and the International Labour Organisation to develop fair trading rules that support core labour standards without removing the only comparative advantage that developing countries have on the world market - their low labour cost.
In the UK, Quaker Peace and Social Witness is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which works to improve the lives of vulnerable workers around the world.
In the US, the American Friends Service Committee campaigns to make the minimum wage a true living wage and to increase the spending in the federal budget on basic human needs. They have also campaigned against moves to curtail workers rights - for example in Ohio, where a change in State law would have removed collective bargaining rights.
Quakers argue that our approach to purchasing goods and services should be mindful of the working conditions that produced them. Just as their predecessors once refused to buy goods produced by slaves, Quakers today question the need to buy goods produced at the expense of a labour force. As Suzanne Ismailsaid in an address to the 2011Britain Yearly Meeting, “ we must engage with the global economy, and make sure that we are informed, active consumers. That might mean buying less. It must mean buying better.”