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We are not robots!

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 19: Working too much, too fast, for too little > We are not robots!

a man feeding a small child.
Workers are parents too.

Every person needs time to rest, relax, and take part in family and community life. But employers want us to work like robots that never feel pain nor fall in love, do not have families, never get sick, and have no lives outside the factory. They want workers to be like robots and never complain, question, challenge, or change a factory system that makes them poor, sick, and tired.

Working too fast or for too long leads to more stress and more injuries, including overuse injuries of muscles and joints (see Chapter 7: Ergonomics).

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Long working hours do not leave us enough time to take care of personal or family needs. Pressure from work comes home with us and can make us feel tense and nervous. Feeling too much "stress" can lead to a variety of physical and mental health problems.

Women are especially affected by stress from long working hours because after a day of work even more work awaits them in taking care of their families.

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Exhaustion occurs when your body and mind can no longer cope with pressures at work and home. It is not just feeling tired, which is common after a long day at work. People who have reached the point of exhaustion may feel extreme fatigue that does not go away with sleep or rest. You might feel pain in muscles and joints, have stomach problems, skin rashes, sore throats, and headaches. Women often will have problems with their monthly bleeding, miscarriages, or other problems with pregnancy. Exhaustion also weakens your body’s defenses against infection and illness. It can make you less able to think clearly, solve problems, or enjoy being with family and friends. Having time to rest and relax can help reduce and prevent exhaustion.

a woman speaking.
I don’t eat breakfast because that’s the only way I can get a little more sleep.

Poor nutrition

People who work long or unpredictable hours have less time to buy fresh food and cook meals. They often cannot afford to buy prepared meals. If the factory does not provide meals, a place to store food, or time to eat, workers are likely to go hungry or fill up on highly processed "junk foods." (For more about the importance of food, see Chapter 28: Eating well for health.)

Finding ways to buy fresh food
workers buying fruit and vegetables at an outdoor market at night.

In the Las Mercedes export zone in Nicaragua, we work 12 to 14 hours a day just to earn enough to survive. Working late in the evening meant we could not go to the market to buy fresh food. A few years ago, a group of merchants began a weekly night market near the zone. We liked it so much it now is a daily market. The market stays open a few hours after most workers get out, which allows us to buy better food for ourselves and our families.


Tired workers sometimes take or are forced to take stimulant drugs so they can keep working and not feel so tired. Some bosses give workers pills or put drugs in drinking water to keep them awake during long shifts. These drugs make your heart beat faster and raise your blood pressure. Drugs that keep you awake may keep you from feeling hungry even when you need to eat, make your mouth dry, and make it difficult to pass stool.

a woman speaking.
The company gives us pills and an 'energy drink' to keep us awake during the overnight shift once a week. The boss told us the pills were vitamins, but we know they are drugs to keep us awake. Even when I am awake, I have no energy. And when I get home, I can’t sleep even if I am tired.
Wgthas black-un.png The right to fair working hours Wgthas black-ilo.png

The UN and ILO have set standards but each country has its own laws on hours.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says you have the right to holidays with pay, rest time, and limits on working hours, while the ILO says workers should have a 40-hour work week, rest, paid holidays, and limits on night work. But each country makes its own rules, so check the laws in your country.

The ILO 40-Hour Week Convention (No. 47) gives workers the right to:

  • an average work week of 40 hours.
  • regular working hours and rest periods.
  • the same wages and benefits if a longer work week is reduced to 40 hours.

The ILO Weekly Rest Convention (No. 14) gives workers the right to 1 day of rest (at least 24 hours) every 7 days. Rest days should be on traditional days of rest.

The ILO Holidays with Pay Convention (No. 132) gives workers the right to at least 3 weeks of paid holiday every year, beyond sick days or national holidays.

  • Workers should earn regular pay and be paid at the beginning of the holiday.
  • The employer decides when you take a holiday, but should talk with you first.
  • If you have not taken all your holiday when you quit or get fired, the employer must pay for earned holiday time.

The ILO Night Work Convention (No. 171) says that a shift of 7 hours or more that includes time between midnight and 5 in the morning is hard on workers.

  • Night workers should be paid more, work shorter shifts, or get other benefits.
  • Workers under 18 years old must not work at night.
  • Pregnant workers should have an alternative to night work before and after childbirth, such as day work, social security, or longer paid time off.
  • Employers must protect night workers’ health, help them meet family and social responsibilities, and provide opportunities for promotion.
  • First aid facilities must be available for night workers, including arrangements for quickly taking workers to a clinic or hospital.
  • You have the right to see a health worker free of charge before starting night work and while working. If you are unfit to work nights, you cannot be fired.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers’ rights are explained in Appendix A.

This page was updated:06 Mar 2018