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Detail from Labor, Charles Sprague Pearce (1896).

Manual labour is physical work done with the hands, especially in an unskilled job such as fruit and vegetable picking, road building, or any other field where the work may be considered physically arduous, and which has as a profitable objective, usually the production of goods.

In ancient times the status of manual labourers was low, as most physical tasks were done by slaves. Legal scholar L. Ali Khan analyses how the Greeks, Hindus, the English, and the Americans created sophisticated social structures to outsource manual labour to distinct classes, castes, and races.[1] This continued into the feudal period. This modest position is still reflected in such professional designations as ranch hand or stage hand, where 'hand' (a pars pro toto for pair of hands, or rather for their owner) means an employee working in the named context. However, certain skilled labourers were seen as artisans, well-paid and could aspire to become influential citizens, especially via professional corporations. It was sometimes referred to as "pick and shovel work."

The phrase hard labour has even become a legal euphemism for penal labour, i.e. a custodial sentence during which the convict is not only confined but also put to manual work; such work may be productive, as on a prison farm, or intrinsically senseless, as with a Treadwheel, the only purpose being the effect of the punishment on the convict.

Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, though, the introduction of reliable machinery further lowered the status of labourers. The reduction in status led to the worldwide labour movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the formation of trade unions. Further technological progress leads to an increasing segment of manual labour (generally using machinery) requiring more training or even theoretical insight.

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