ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
  • Print page
Commentary - Art. 53. Part III : Captivity #Section III : Labour of prisoners of war
    [p.279] ARTICLE 53. -- DURATION OF LABOUR


    Article 30 of the 1929 Convention, which already limited the duration of work, was not always respected during the Second World War. There were many abuses, either because the time of the journey to and from work was not taken into account as it should have been, or because civilian workers were required to work excessively long hours. (1) In drafting the present Article, the authors of the new Convention therefore tried to include specific-safeguards concerning the duration of labour.

    PARAGRAPH 1. -- DURATION OF DAILY LABOUR

    This paragraph includes three safeguards: the first, which is of a general nature, provides that the duration of labour may not be excessive; the second states that the time of the journey to and from work must be counted as part of the hours of work; the third relates to the limits permitted for civilian workers.

    A. ' General safeguard '. -- This rule is an essential part of the present provision, since the main purpose of work is to maintain prisoners of war in a good state of health.
    [p.280] One may, therefore, find it surprising that the authors of the Convention did not adopt fixed standards, such as working days of eight or ten hours, as was in fact proposed at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference (2). The suggestion was rejected because the delegates wished to avoid too specific a provision, for two reasons. In the first place, prisoner-of-war labour cannot be assimilated completely to civilian labour. The living conditions of prisoners of war, their technical ability, moral status, pay -- in fact, everything distinguishes them from civilian workers. Moreover, they remain subject to military discipline and their daily routine is governed by the military authorities.
    The second reason is still more important. One can easily imagine how difficult it would have been for the authors of the Convention to make provision for the application to prisoners, in war-time, of standards which in the case of civilian workers are generally modified when circumstances so require. The civilian population would probably rise in protest against the privileged treatment which prisoners of war would thus receive (3).
    It is nevertheless important to have some idea as to the "normal" duration of work if one is to attempt to define what it "excessive," In this connection, reference may be made to the standards established or recommended by the International Labour Organisation which normally limit the duration of labour for workers to eight hours per day and forty-eight hours per week (4). Circumstances may warrant an extension beyond these limits, but only by a reasonable amount.

    B. ' Allowance for time spent travelling to and from work '. -- The requirement that the time spent in travelling to and fro between the [p.281] camp and the place of work must be counted as part of working hours is a very important one. The journey is usually made on foot, and often requires great effort which must be taken into account if the safeguard is to be of any real value. The Convention makes no distinction between journeys made on foot and those for which transport is provided.

    C. ' Maximum limit '. -- In no case may the daily working hours of prisoners of war exceed those permitted for civilian workers in the district who are nationals of the Detaining Power and employed on the same work. This is an additional safeguard, for it is assumed that the legal working conditions of the country are neither "excessive" nor "inhuman". If they were, however, the present clause could not deprive prisoners of war of the safeguards to which they are entitled under the Convention -- in particular under Article 13 and the other provisions of the present paragraph -- by lowering standards of treatment to the level of those granted to nationals of the Detaining Power.

    PARAGRAPH 2. -- REST

    1. ' First sentence. -- Daily rest '

    The 1929 Convention made no provision for a daily rest period. The present clause allows prisoners of war a rest of one hour or the same as that to which civilian workers are entitled, if the latter is of longer duration. As is stated in paragraph 1, the civilian workers referred to are those in the district who are nationals of the Detaining Power employed on the same work.

    2. ' Second sentence. -- Weekly rest '

    The observance of Sunday as a day of rest corresponds to a Christian principle and is also a widespread custom throughout the world; it was accepted without reserve by the authors of the 1929 Convention, which stated, in Article 30 , that prisoners of war must be allowed a rest of twenty-four consecutive hours each week, preferably on Sunday. At the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, the delegation of Israel proposed that the day of rest should be that observed in the country of origin of the prisoners concerned. There were some objections to this proposal, as certain delegations were afraid that it might cause [p.282] confusion. In view of the universal nature of the Convention, however, the amendment was finally adopted (5).
    It will be noted, however, that this is not a requirement and the Convention only obliges the Detaining Power to allow a rest of twenty-four consecutive hours each week. Whether the day is Sunday or the day of rest observed in the prisoners' country of origin, this is merely a recommendation.

    3. ' Third sentence. -- Annual rest '

    Prisoners of war are granted an annual rest of eight consecutive days during which the working pay provided under Article 54 must be paid them. This is an entirely new provision, introduced by the Conference of Government Experts. With regard to its implementation, the national legislation of the Detaining Power concerning the protection of labour must be recognized as applicable, pursuant to Article 51, paragraph 2 , to the extent that it covers working conditions for prisoners of war. A number of problems may arise, especially in the case of any temporary interruption because of accident or illness, or because of transfer. A distinction must be made, for instance, between interruptions for which the prisoner is not responsible and those which are the result of action by him, as in the case of attempted escape. One may even wonder in the latter case if, from the point of view of work, such an attempt does not constitute a breach of contract.

    PARAGRAPH 3. -- PIECE WORK

    It is obviously in the interest of the Detaining Power to require prisoners of war to follow work methods such as jobbing or piece work and this was widespread during the Second World War. If such methods are applied, however, it must be borne in mind that very often the prisoners concerned are not qualified in the occupation assigned to them and consequently find it more difficult than civilian workers to achieve the output required. In case of any obvious lack of co-operation on the part of prisoners of war, the Detaining Power may exercise its disciplinary power in accordance with the provisions of Article 89 .


    * (1) [(1) p.279] In this connection, see BRETONNIERE: op. cit.,
    pp. 189-192. See also ' Report of the International
    Committee of the Red Cross on its activities during the
    Second World War, ' Vol. I, p. 329;

    (2) [(1) p.280] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
    Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 362;

    (3) [(2) p.280] In this connection, see ' Report on the Work
    of the Conference of Government Experts, ' p. 176;

    (4) [(3) p.280] Convention No. 1, limiting the hours of work
    in industrial undertakings to 8 in the day and 48 in the
    week, which came into force on June 13, 1921 --
    Recommendation No. 7, dated June 15-July 10, 1920,
    concerning the limitation of hours of work in the fishing
    industry (8 hours in the day and 48 in the week) --
    Convention No. 30, concerning the regulation of hours of
    work in commerce and offices, which came into force on
    August 29, 1933 (8 hours in the day and 48 in the week; 10
    hours in the day in exceptional cases) -- Convention No.
    31, limiting the hours of work in coal mines (time spent
    in underground mines limited to 7 hours 45 minutes in the
    day) -- Convention No. 43 for the regulation of hours of
    work in automatic sheet-glass works, which came into force
    on January 13, 1938 (the work to be done by successive
    shifts, the hours of work not to exceed 42 per week,
    calculated over a period not exceeding 4 weeks, the length
    of a spell of work not to exceed 8 hours) -- Convention
    No. 51 concerning the reduction of hours of work on public
    works (maximum hours of work to be 40 to 42 hours per
    week);

    (5) [(1) p.282] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
    Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, pp. 361-362;