In the Habsburg Monarchy of the 19th and early 20th centuries, employment booklets for labourers and servants were mandatory documents for legal work, for travelling, and for proving one’s identity. Unlike other European countries which abolished such documents, the Habsburg Monarchy extended this obligation to ever more categories of wage laborers during this era. This chapter addresses these documents as a symbol and as a means for establishing, negotiating, and enforcing work contracts. Government authorities and employers’ organisations viewed work booklets as an indispensable precondition of control, as well as to establish trust and prohibit breach of contract. It was also argued that these papers—as certificates of work and qualifications—helped people in their search for work. However, organizations of labourers and servants described these documents as mere symbols of humiliation and of legal inequality, indeed as a ‘sign of slavery.’
Multiple conflicts are recorded concerning the contents of work references: Employers were accused of withholding documents to enforce a contract or to furnish themselves with a form of security for wage advances and debts. Individual or collective breach of contract was a violation of the trade law but, when committed by workers, also a criminal offense. Besides fines, monetary compensation or imprisonment were possible punishments. A person could likewise be forced to return to his/her workplace. Studying these different outcomes of practices and confrontations around employment booklets enables us to differentiate the diverse ways in which legal requirements were used, abused, resisted, and neglected.