Amid the rise of industry and the growth of towns in the second half of the 19th century, life was often wretched for the working classes. Many worked twelve or more hours a day, women and children too. The conditions in which people lived and worked in the towns were often appalling. Workers soon combined to form unions to campaign for change.
It was a Liberal member of parliament, Samuel van Houten, who in 1874 initiated legislation to stop children under twelve being employed in factories. This was the first step on the road to reform. Yet abuses continued: inspections to ensure the law was obeyed were sporadic and child labour remained on farms and in cottage industries. Van Houten’s law was the first piece of social legislation in the Netherlands. Later, the Labour Law of 1889 and its updated version in 1911 regulated the hours that women and children could work, as well as men. A major contribution to the prevention of child labour was the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1901.
Apart from the affluent middle classes, other members of Dutch society also began demanding rights in the second half of the 19th century. Workers organised unions and political parties. They agitated for better working conditions and universal suffrage. Dutch Catholics, discriminated against for centuries, campaigned for equal rights and pushed alongside Protestants for separate schools based on religious principles. Women also demanded equal rights and in particular the right to vote. The constitutional amendment of 1917 gave all Dutchmen the right to vote and religious schools were placed on a par with state schools. Women were given the vote in 1919.