Workers’ Colonies

The Past That Didn’t Survive

Martin Jemelka

What are workers’ colonies?

Everywhere where the industrial revolution and industrialisation have confronted large employers and industrial workers with the crucial question of how to deal with workers’ housing. The housing question was largely privatised across Europe decades ago - each of us is responsible for our own housing. However, the restructuring of the labour market and, more recently, the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 labour market pandemic have once again highlighted the crucial relationship between work, housing and the quality of life needed to work and perform adequately.

Workers’ colonie had numerous historial predecessors. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, separate urban enclaves of workers were established in cities. These often took the form of rural housing and were intended to evoke the anthropological constants of rural life. In Czechia, various examples include Bethlehem in Hlinsko, the Chaloupky in Rychnov nad Kněžnou and Tkalcovská ulička in Ústí nad Orlicí.

Social control by the employer, both in and out of the workplace, played a crucial role in the pre-industrial and industrial eras. Workers’ colonies were not only places of housing and non-work time, but also sites for the formation of industrial society according to the ideas of employers. The ambition of large industrial employers to control and direct the lives of employees has now been taken over by multinational corporations. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic and energy crisis have resuscitated workers’ calls for regulation.

Industrial Ostrava, one big workers’ colony

Nowhere in Czechia did workers’ colonies play such an important role as in industrial Ostrava. From at least the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, workers’ colonies were the most common way of accommodating employees of local coal, iron, steel, and heavy industries, including railroads. Almost a hundred workers’ colonies were built in the area of today’s Ostrava alone during this period.

The housing of industrial workers began in Ostrava shortly before 1850, when the oldest mining plants adapted their original working areas for housing of transient miners. The choice between barracks-type mass accommodation or family housing in multi-apartment houses with vegetable gardens was made in favor of the latter, and by the end of the 19th century hundreds of similar workers’ and clerks’ houses had been built, housing thousands of families. By the First World War, the construction of a larger type of workers’ housing with a common central space, pavilion houses, were popular with residents, and had less of a rural character.

Between the world wars, several model and exemplary workers’ housing estates were built in Ostrava, which corresponded to the contemporary standards of healthy and socially adequate accommodation for the working classes.

Not only under the influence of fashionable Scandinavian architecture, but also elsewhere in the Czech lands, colonies of prefabricated so-called Finnish houses began to be built in Ostrava. The Finnish houses closed more than a century-long tradition of building workers’ colonies in the Ostrava industrial area. In the places of the workers’ colonies, which were demolished en masse in the 1960s and 1970s, prefabricated high-rise housing estates began to spring up.

Workers’ colonies today

There are still dozens of workers’ colonies in Ostrava and the Ostrava region, which are inhabited and with a distinctive way of life, straddling the (semi-)urban and (semi-)rural lifestyle with gardens and private and public greenery. The housing stock has either been privately owned since the 1960s and maintained or renovated at private expense, or is held by large owners and housing managers, successors to the mining companies that invested in the construction of the colonies before 1945. The most problematic form of existing workers’ colonies are socially excluded localities with dilapidated housing stock and a population at risk of poverty.

Just as the workers’ colonies are being reconstructed and repaired, they are also being demolished or illegally dismantled for building materials. Thus, the areas of workers’ colonies have turned into brownfields, overgrown with trees and waiting for their new chance, usually in the form of production zones and business parks.

Anachronic housing without a future?

Because of the growing interest of the Czech public in industrial heritage and technical monuments, it is surprising that no workers’ colony in Czechia has yet been made accessible as a museum.

Some workers’ colonies are still inhabited by the poor and the marginalized, and dependent on the help of the state and the non-profit sector.

The rapid transformation of the global labour market, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis of the present day have fundamentally changed the demands placed on workers and employers. While employers are shifting production costs to employees, workers are again expecting employer intervention in the social sphere, including housing.