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Categories of Rural Workers in the Late Nineteenth Century

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Migrant workers usually get, apart from wage payments, an advance, free travel and room, heating, and 25 pounds of potatoes per person delivered on a weekly basis. Most of the time, the lords hire a female cook. Usually she is the wife of the foreman, unless the people’s mistrust renders impossible this kind – or any similar form – of economically suitable arrangement to satisfy their needs. Wages differ from one region to the next and according to local circumstances. [ . . . ] It would be a reasonable reflection of actual conditions if we [ . . . ] estimated the income of girls and women at 370-420 marks and that of the men at 495-580 marks. Of that, each migrant worker manages to save at least 150 marks per summer, but there are also some people who, at a wage of only 1 mark, put away 210 marks or more for the winter. [ . . . ]

Despite the regulations passed in Prussia, we still frequently find single persons living together in communal quarters and bedrooms at the foreman’s house, and in many German states this is virtually a universal phenomenon. [ . . . ]

In every place where large masses of migrant workers are gathered, one can observer how low these people rank in terms of their moral conceptions. Quite often the Sachsengänger deceive themselves about the lowering of their living conditions over the course of the summer. For in order to put away a hefty sum of money, their nutrition is often utterly inadequate, especially when they prepare meals themselves. Due to their irregular way of life, the temptation to drink is never far away. Just how easily not only the Polish and Russian migrant workers succumb to this temptation can be observed in both sexes on their days off. But nothing destroys the moral strength of a person more than concubinage and excessive consumption of alcohol.

Source: Ernst Fiedler, Die Arbeiterfrage auf dem Lande und Vorschläge zur Reform des ländlichen Arbeiterwesens [The Workers Question in the Country and Suggestions for Reforming the Character of Rural Workers]. Leipzig, 1898, pp. 19-25, 37-41.

Original German text reprinted in Gerhard A. Ritter and Jürgen Kocka, eds., Deutsche Sozialgeschichte 1870-1914. Dokumente und Skizzen [German Social History 1870-1914. Documents and Sketches], 3rd ed. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1982, pp. 192-95.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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