Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women

For the first time in European history, nations agreed collectively to advance an international standard for labor forbidding the employment of women at night.

Summary of Event

The gathering of representatives of fourteen European nations in Bern, Switzerland, in September of 1906 and their agreement to act in concert to ban night work for women marked not only the culmination of labor reformers’ efforts to protect female workers and advance their welfare but also the establishment as operative the principle of international agreement and action in the field of industrial reform and workers’ rights. Although this international convention was the first of its kind, and partly for that reason was limited in its scope, it set the standard for increasingly rigorous international labor legislation in the twentieth century. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles took up where the Bern Convention left off. The League of Nations, through its International Labor Organization, committed itself to the advancement of international standards for economic and social democracy and continued to reaffirm that night work for women and children had no legitimate place in modern industrial society. Ironically, even until 1930, the leading industrial nation in the world, the United States, continued to defy this principle. Bern Convention
Women;workplace safety
Workplace safety;night work
Night work;women
[kw]Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women (Sept. 19, 1906)
[kw]Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women, Bern (Sept. 19, 1906)
[kw]Night Work for Women, Bern Convention Prohibits (Sept. 19, 1906)
[kw]Work for Women, Bern Convention Prohibits Night (Sept. 19, 1906)
[kw]Women, Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for (Sept. 19, 1906)
Bern Convention
Women;workplace safety
Workplace safety;night work
Night work;women
[g]Switzerland;Sept. 19, 1906: Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women[01700]
[c]Business and labor;Sept. 19, 1906: Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women[01700]
[c]Women’s issues;Sept. 19, 1906: Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women[01700]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 19, 1906: Bern Convention Prohibits Night Work for Women[01700]
Frey, Emile
William II
Webb, Sidney
Webb, Beatrice
Fawcett, Millicent Garrett

The Bern Conference of 1906 and the night-work treaty it forged was the culmination of a movement that had been active in Europe for more than a generation. This international agreement was the product of the prolonged public-spirited efforts of feminists, labor reformers, Social Democrats, and Marxian socialists. These groups were the first to respond to the physical and economic abuses of the factory system, especially as these assaulted the welfare of women and children.

In the nineteenth century, women who worked at night were unusually burdened and threatened—by the generally unhealthy conditions in the factory, by the night-work hours that rarely provided for breaks or rest periods, and by the accumulated fatigue that came from their responsibilities as mothers and wives during the day in addition to the “unnatural” hours of night employment. The result was, too often, neglect of family, ill health, high accident rates at home and on the job, and high morbidity.

The English were the first to legislate on behalf of female and child workers, directing themselves particularly to the grueling and unhealthy conditions in mining and addressing both the length of and specific hours worked. The increasingly popular sentiment was to “protect” women and children from “hard” labor, as found in the mines, from excessively long hours, and from “unnatural” and potentially immoral employment outside the home at night. In the English Factory Act of 1844, children under the age of thirteen were limited to six and one-half hours of work per day, and women were limited to twelve, with a provision prohibiting work between 8:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. The 1847 Ten Hours Act reduced the workday for women in textile mills to ten hours and continued to stipulate the specific hours of the workday, which were to be between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.

The pioneering efforts to prohibit night work for women in England were taken up by the Swiss at midcentury. The Swiss Confederation was advanced in social legislation compared to most European nations. The confederation in 1877 adopted a law, first enacted in 1864 by the single canton of Glarus, that prohibited night work for all workers. Although employers made repeated efforts to repeal or amend this act, the political consensus upheld the prohibition of night work. By the end of the nineteenth century, several other European nations had legislated some form of night-work prohibition for women: Austria and Russia in 1885, the Netherlands in 1889, Germany in 1891, and France in 1892. At the same time, support for this reform began to affect communities outside Europe. New Zealand prohibited night work for women in 1881, and Massachusetts was the first in the United States to endorse the principle, in 1890.

The growing political consensus opposed to night work for women in the nineteenth century was generated by diverse individuals and groups. Although European feminists such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, supported and advanced protective labor legislation for women and children, they were primarily concerned with political, and not economic or social, rights for women. Middle-class political feminists tended to oppose night work on moral grounds, seeing it as a major threat to healthy family life and often equating it, at least rhetorically, with prostitution.

The strongest proponents for night-work reform were labor unionists and those on the political left, particularly the broad range of European socialists, including Fabians and Labour Party members in England such as Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, Social Democrats in England, France, and Germany, and Marxian socialists. Fabian Socialists (Great Britain) Female socialists in particular were often divided on the issue of protectionism, with some feminist socialists arguing that true equality for women should eschew protective legislation. Despite the divisions within the socialist ranks, these reformers generally agreed on the need to protect all citizens from the destructive effects of industrial capitalism and consequently advanced night-work reforms as but one part of the new economic and social order to be wrought by socialism. The increasing political pressure from the left resulted in the movement from unilateral, national legislation to the consideration of a multinational or international agreement on labor standards.

In 1890, the emperor of Germany, William II, became an unexpected advocate of this kind of social and economic reform, calling for international cooperation and a conference on labor in Berlin. The emperor’s sudden leadership in the arena of labor reform at this time was a defensive response to the growing strength of the socialist movement in Germany and across Europe, as well as to the threat of strikes in the Ruhr. His purpose was to moderate if not undermine the political influence of the working-class movement. The calling of the Berlin Conference successfully marshaled official and diplomatic support for cooperative labor reform that European nations had previously been reluctant to give.

The Swiss, in particular, and their Federal Council president, Emile Frey, had repeatedly issued calls for international treaties for the uniform regulation of labor during the previous two decades but had consistently met with official indifference. In the process of organizing their own conference in 1889, the Swiss acknowledged the superior ability of German leadership to effect commonly held objectives and quickly supported the emperor. The Berlin Conference brought representatives of the major European powers together to consider the needs of workers, the first time that such a meeting had occurred.

The agenda for the Berlin Conference was too broad, diverse, and ambitious to be effective. The conference proved disappointing to many reformers because it did not result in any binding agreement among the fourteen participating nations. It did, however, establish the goal of setting international labor standards and set Europe on the road to international action and treaty making. The conference’s recommendation against night work for women resulted in France, Germany, and Italy legislating against the practice. More important, the conference made clear the need for an international instrument to effect both research and action on the front of labor reform.

By 1900, the International Association for Labor Legislation International Association for Labor Legislation had been established, and its creation, the International Labor Office, International Labor Office directed its efforts toward the specific problem of night work. In 1903, it requested the Swiss Federal Council to initiate an international conference. Organizers had learned the lessons of Berlin, and the proposed conference was to focus on only two of the most grievous abuses in industry: night work and the use of white phosphorus in the match industry. Memoranda on the two issues were sent to the fourteen European governments in the spring of 1904, and in September of 1906, in Bern, the first international labor treaty and the first article of the International Labor Code International Labor Code were endorsed by Germany, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The Bern Convention of 1906 forbade two things: the use of white phosphorus in the match industry and the employment of women for night work. With regard to the latter, the treaty made clear that the major European nations would no longer tolerate the pernicious and debilitating effects of night work on women. It forbade the practice without distinction of age and required that the night’s rest should have a minimum duration of eleven consecutive hours, to include the hours from 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. The prohibition was to apply to all industrial undertakings employing more than ten workers, except those that employed only members of the proprietor’s family. Exceptions were allowed, in particular those resulting from “force majeure” (events beyond control) or those in which night work was necessary to prevent losses, as when certain materials deteriorated quickly. Although the terms of the convention required ratification by the participating parties no later than December 31, 1908, the date was later extended to January 14, 1910. By January of 1912, all parties had ratified the agreement, and it came duly into force. For female industrial workers, it marked the beginning of a European economic community that recognized and protected their rights to earn a living without the major risks of ill health and neglect of family responsibilities.


The Bern Convention acted as a stimulus to ever-increasing rigor among the European nations in protecting women from employment at night. States that traditionally had been reluctant to embrace such reforms—for example, Belgium and Spain—passed appropriate legislation, and those nations that had already passed night-work laws made it a point of pride to advance beyond the requirements of the convention. The treaty also extended night-work reforms beyond the continent, as it came to be applied to European colonies, possessions, and protectorates. The standard set by the signatories influenced nonparticipating nations as well. Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, and Greece had legislated against night work for women by 1912, and the beginnings of protective legislation in industry were advanced in Japan, India, and Argentina. By 1914, the success of the Bern Conference had encouraged the scheduling of a second meeting, but this meeting was canceled as a result of the outbreak of World War I.

The war constituted a serious setback to the accomplishments of Bern. As a force majeure, it abrogated previous reforms, and under emergency war powers most labor legislation throughout Europe was disregarded. Work hours were lengthened, and overtime and night shifts became common. Even England, after almost a century of prohibition, revived the practice of night work for women. Moved by patriotic ardor, labor, at least at the beginning of the conflict, acquiesced in its loss of protective standards. By the last years of the war, however, it became apparent to both workers and policy makers that increasing work hours was ultimately counterproductive, as it resulted in diminished returns. By 1916, several European nations had moved to restore the protective provisions of labor legislation operative before the war.

The principles and agreements of the Bern Convention were reaffirmed at war’s end. The Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1919) devoted a special chapter to labor, committed the signatories to the principles of social justice, and created an agency within the League of Nations, the International Labor Organization, International Labor Organization to direct and enforce labor standards protecting workers in industry. At a conference held in Washington, D.C., in 1919, delegates took up the issues of protective legislation at the point where Bern had left off and went beyond the earlier provisions in prohibiting night work for women in all public and private industrial undertakings. In addition, the process of ratification and enforcement was quickened. The new convention was implemented on June 21, 1921. The experience of the war and the almost universal commitment to international cooperation in the quest for peace and social justice made the acceptance and implementation of this second night-work convention more rapid than that of the first.

By 1928, thirty-six countries had abolished night work for women in industry or had taken steps toward its prohibition. These included all the European nations with the exception of three (Monaco, Albania, and Turkey), India, Japan, several European dependencies in Africa, the British dominions, and nine countries in Central and South America. Because the United States did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles and embrace the League of Nations, it became the most significant exception to the collective and universal condemnation of night work for women. On the eve of the Great Depression, only one-third of U.S. states had any legislation prohibiting the employment of women for night work, and where such laws had been passed, they proved to be limited and ineffective. Ultimately, the Depression itself forced state and federal lawmakers to address the rights and needs of all workers, including women, and to prohibit night work for women under the auspices of New Deal labor legislation. Bern Convention
Women;workplace safety
Workplace safety;night work
Night work;women

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present. Rev. ed. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Comprehensive history of women in Europe offers excellent treatment of the social and political circumstances bearing on working women and the forces that propelled labor reform during the early twentieth century. Sections titled “Women of the Cities” and “Traditions Rejected” are particularly informative on these topics.
  • Boxer, Marilyn, and Jean H. Quataert, eds. Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. New York: Elsevier North-Holland, 1978. Collection of essays addresses various aspects of socialist feminism during the period when socialism was gaining strength throughout Europe. Particularly informative concerning the conflicts among women, who were often torn between their commitment to socialism and their commitment to feminism, and the diverse approaches to protective legislation for working women.
  • Kelley, Florence. Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, and Morality. 1914. Reprint. New York: Hyperion, 1975. Excellent example of the works produced by social and labor reformers at the time of the Bern Conference. Kelley, an American socialist with ties to European reformers, presents a polemic typical of those who condemned industrial capitalism as antiwoman and antifamily.
  • Lewenhak, Sheila. Women and Trade Unions: An Outline History of Women in the British Trade Union Movement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. Offers an excellent overview of women’s organizations and objectives in the trade union movement in Great Britain, the nation that advanced the first protective legislation for working women.
  • Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Comprehensive account of the development of feminism in European societies and the growth of international and transnational feminist organizations. Aims to change readers’ perceptions by placing gender at the center of European history.
  • Thönnessen, Werner. The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Woman’s Movement in German Social Democracy, 1863-1933. Glasgow: Pluto Press, 1976. Interesting and informative national study of the women’s movement in Germany, especially the various programs for labor reform. Provides insight into the role of William II as a social reformer.
  • Tilly, Louise A., and Joan W. Scott. Women, Work, and Family. 1978. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1987. Excellent factual and analytic presentation of the impact of the rise of industrialism in Europe on women and the family. Provides a fine overview of both the causes and the effects of the increasing employment among women.

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