A Book of Work

Belgian livret d'ouvrier 1874The image at left is of a Belgian “livret d’ouvrier” issued to my great grandfather in 1874 by the province of Hainaut.

Livret des ouvriers were official “work booklets” issued by the local government in France and Belgium throughout the 19th century. Workers were required to submit these booklets to their employers, who used them to confirm their identity and work history.

Employers not only recorded and validated the beginning and end dates of each work engagement, they also held onto the booklets for the duration.

The livret d’ouvrier functioned as a tool of social control and enabled industry and government to effectively restrict and control the movement of workers.

When a worker wanted to travel outside the immediate area, he had to go to his employer and retrieve his livret d’ouvrier — and presumably, he would also have to explain where he was going. Those without a valid livret d’ouvrier could be arrested for vagrancy.

An example of this restriction is depicted in Victor Hugo’s story Les Miserables, set in 1815 France. The document policeman Javert asks Jean Valjean for is his livret d’ouvrier. However, as a parolee, Valjean has only a yellow “feuille de route” also known as a “passeport jaune” (yellow passport) which immediately  identifies him as a former convict.

Created by the French regime in 1803,  livret des ouvriers were temporarily abandoned in 1830 after mine workers destroyed their livrets during riots at Borinage. However, an 1840 royal decree by King Leopold I of Belgium incorporated the livret d’ouvrier into Belgian law, and livrets became widespread there after 1845.

The first engagement in my great grandfather’s book is 16 July 1874 – 19 August 1874 at  Produits Colliery in Beligium. Between 1874 and 1884 there were several more engagements; those I can make out include Mines de Escarpelle, Mines de Lievin, Belle et Bonne, and Du Charbonniere Douaisienne, Pas de Calais, France.

The final entry in 1884:  “Vu a las Mairie du Hersin-Coupigny” literally “To see the Mayor of Hersin-Coupigny, Pas de Calais.”  This entry coincides with the date of a letter of good character my great grandfather obtained in preparation for his immigration to America in 1885.