Worker Mortality, by Paule Mink (1895)


While so much noise is made about the anarchist attacks (attentats) and the victims they have produced, it is not without interest to consider briefly the conditions of the worker’s labor and to see how many victims have been made by the capitalist, that devourer of strengths and of workers’ lives.

We do not want, at present, to enumerate the victims of the frequent accidents in the mines, the railroads, and construction sites, which can add up to millions and millions each year; we will concern ourselves, for the moment, only with those unfortunates who die slowly as a consequence their labor and the atrocious conditions under which they engage in it.

There is a lot of talk about pension funds for the old workers, of 60 years of age or more; the exploiters, and the government itself, are hesitant to make such a feeble reform, and yet these workers’ pensions will bankrupt no one, for there are not many of the poor old workers who reach that almost fateful age of 60 years; the majority do not even live to be 50. The official statistics affirm that the mean is 32 years for day-laborers; 41 years for the hewers of stone, lithographers and compositors-typographers; 44 years for the boot-makers, tailors and bakers; 47 years for the locksmiths and blacksmiths; 49 years for the carpenters, masons and house-painters; as for the miners, no one has dared to prepare the statistics.

Thus, according to the official data itself, not a worker lives to be 50 years of age. Ah! The fields of labor are largely covered with the corpses of the producers of the public fortune, dead from the trouble of enriching and fattening the exploiters! And we balk at giving a meager pension to those—who are indeed very few—who have reached that phenomenal age of 60 years!…

The statistics aren’t given for workers employed in absolutely murderous  labors. Those figures would be horrible.

In the congress on hygiene held recently, some men of science have established in a brutal manner the degree of noxiousness in certain industries in which the gas and dust that the workers breathe are rapidly fatal to them.

We know the horrible ravages worked on the human body by phosphorous, which rots the bones and destroys the teeth; by carbon disulphide, which produces madness; by the fabrication of verdigris, made by women who cannot withstand more than three years of this murderous labor; by the production of lead and white lead, which produces horrible colics, and little by little destroys the organism of those who handle it. And the salts and derivatives of lead are employed in more than fifty different occupations.

Dr. Hirt claims that on will find 21 consumptives in every 100 laborers working with lead: a fifth! For those employed in the extraction of the mineral, it is worse still, and the same doctor, as well as Dr. Proust, affirms that, for every 1,000 workers, 870 are ill. In certain factories where the lead is handled—at Lille, among other places—the number of the sick is from 42  to 56 per 100 annually.

As for poisoning by white lead, it is dreadful. Dr. Meurein, H. Desplats, and Arnould Proust, show that the fabrication of lead leaves 50 to 60 of each one hundred workers ill annually. And what awful maladies! The workers rarely recover from them. With regard to reproduction, the effects of lead poisoning [intoxication saturnine] are still more disastrous. Among the saturnine mothers—for women also work with lead—of 27 pregnancies, there are 22 miscarriages, 4 still-births, and 1 child alone survives. When only the fathers are afflicted with saturnism, of 120 pregnancies, there are 82 miscarriages, 9 still-born, 25 children dead before the age of 7, 4 alone survive, but how puny and sickly they are!

And these cruel slaughters of workers have not only taken place among the unfortunate workers in lead and white lead; we know how great the mortality is among the women and girls employed in the textile mills and at the looms, the majority of whom become consumptive due to the continual respiration of unhealthy dust from wool and cotton. It is the same for all those who work with stone or flint.

According to Dr. Napias, of 100 stonemasons, 80 die consumptive; 70 percent of sharpeners and file-makers are affected by the disease; 45 percent of the lithographers are also sick with tuberculosis.

There then is the cruel murderer, the great devourer of human life: it is industry; it is exploitation, which, by obliging men to labor long hours in atrocious conditions, assassinates them bit by bit, takes their lives in exchange for a bit of bread.

These are the real social crimes: the anarchist attentats are far from their equal.

Paule Mink

[Almanach de la Question Sociale pour 1895, pp. 164-165.
Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur; revised 2/28/2012.]
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.