John A. Hobson.

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done to extend the arm of the law over small workshops; but the worst
form of out-work, that voluntarily undertaken by women in their own
homes, cannot be thus put down. Nothing short of a total prohibition of
outwork imposed on employers would be effectual here. Lastly, there are
many large employments not subject to the Factory Act, where the
economic power of the employer over weak employees is grossly abused.
One of the worst instances is that of the large laundries, where women
work enormously long hours during the season, and are often engaged for
fifteen or sixteen hours on Fridays and Saturdays. The whole class of
shop-assistants are worked excessive hours. Twelve and fourteen hours
are a common shop day, and frequently the figure rises to sixteen hours.
Restaurants and public-houses are perhaps the greatest offenders. The
case of shop-assistants is most aggravated, for these excessive hours of
labour are wholly waste time; a reduction of 25 or even of 50 per cent
in the shopping-day, reasonably adjusted to the requirements of classes
and localities, would cause no diminution in the quantity of sales
effected, nor would it cause any appreciable inconvenience to the
consuming public.

§ 5. Sanitary Conditions. - Seeing that a larger proportion of women
workers are occupied in the small workshops or in their own overcrowded
homes, it is obvious that the fourth count of the "sweating" charge,
that of unsanitary conditions of work, applies more cruelly to them than
to men. Their more sedentary occupations, and the longer hours they work
in many cases outside the operation of the Factory Act, makes the evils
of overcrowding, bad ventilation, bad drainage, etc., more detrimental
to the health of women than of men workers.

§ 6. Special Burdens incident on Women. - We have now applied the four
chief heads of the "sweating" disease - low wages, long hours, irregular
employment, unsanitary conditions - to women's work, and have seen that
the absolute pressure in each case is heavier on the weaker sex.

But in estimating the industrial condition of women, there are certain
other considerations which must not be left out of sight.

To many women-workers, the duties of maternity and the care of children,
which in a civilized human society ought to secure for them some
remission from the burden, of the industrial fight, are a positive
handicap in the struggle for a livelihood. When a married woman or a
widow is compelled to support herself and her family, the home ties
which preclude her from the acceptance of regular factory work, tell
fatally against her in the effort to earn a living. Married women, and
others with home duties which cannot be neglected, furnish an almost
illimitable field of casual or irregular labour. Not only is this
irregular work worse paid than regular factory work, but its existence
helps to keep up the pernicious system of "out-work" under which
"sweating" thrives. The commercial competition of to-day positively
trades upon the maternity of women-workers.

In estimating the quantity of work which falls to the lot of industrial
women-workers, we must not forget to add to the wage-work that domestic
work which few of them can wholly avoid, and which is represented by no
wages. Looking at the problem in a broad human light, it is difficult to
say which is the graver evil, the additional burden of the domestic
work, so far as it is done, or the habitual neglect of it, where it is
evaded. Here perhaps the former point of view is more pertinent. To the
long hours of the factory-worker, or the shopwoman, we must often add
the irksome duties which to a weary wife must make the return home a
pain rather than a pleasure. When the industrial work is carried on at
home the worries and interruptions of family life must always contribute
to the difficulty and intensity of the toil, and tell upon the nervous
system and the general health of the women-workers.

Other evils, incident on woman's industrial work, do not require
elaboration, though their cumulative effect is often very real. Many
women-workers, the locality of whose home depends on the work of their
husband or father, are obliged to travel every day long distances to and
from their work. The waste of time, the weariness, and sometimes the
expense of 'bus or train thus imposed on them, is in thousands of cases
a heavy tax upon their industrial life. Women working in factories, or
taking work home, suffer also many wrongs by reason of their "weaker
sex," and their general lack of trade organization. Unjust and arbitrary
fines are imposed by harsh employers so as to filch a portion of their
scanty earnings; their time is wasted by unnecessary delay in the giving
out of work, or its inspection when finished; the brutality and
insolence of male overseers is a common incident in their career. In a
score of different ways the weakness of women injures them as
competitors in the free fight for industrial work.

§ 7. Causes of the Industrial Weakness of Women. - This brief summary of
the industrial condition of low-skilled women-workers will suffice to
bring out the fact that the "sweating" question is even more a woman's
question than a man's. The question which rises next is, Why do women as
industrial workers suffer more than men?

In the first place, as the physically weaker sex, they do on the average
a smaller quantity of work, and therefore receive lower wages. In
certain kinds of work, where women do piece-work along with men, it is
found that they get as high wages as men for the same quantity of work.
The recent report upon Textile Industries establishes this fact so far
as those trades are concerned. But this is not always, perhaps not in
the majority of instances, the case. Women-workers do not, in many
cases, receive the same wages which would be paid to men for doing the
same work. Why is this? It is sometimes described as an unfair advantage
taken of women because they are women. There is a male prejudice, it is
urged, against women-workers, which prevents employers from paying them
the wages they could and would pay to men.

Now this contention, so far as it refers to a sentimental bias, is not
tenable. A body of women-workers, equally skilled with male workers, and
as strongly organized, would be able to extract the same rate of wages
in any trade. Everything depends upon the words "_as strongly
organized_." It is the general industrial weakness of the condition of
most women-workers, and not a sex prejudice, which prevents them from
receiving the wages which men might get, if the work the women do were
left for male competition alone. An employer, as a rule, pays the lowest
wages he can get the work done at. The real question we have to meet is
this. Why can he get women who will consent to work at a lower rate than
he could get men to work at? What peculiar conditions are there
affecting women which will oblige them to accept work on lower terms
than men?

Well, in the first place, the wage of a man can never fall much lower
than will suffice to maintain at the minimum standard of comfort both
himself and the average family he has to support. The minimum wage of
the man, it is true, need not cover the full support of his family,
because the wife or children will on the average contribute something to
their maintenance. But the wage of the man must cover his own support,
and part of the support of his family. This marks a rigid minimum wage
for male labour; if competition tends to drive wages lower, the supply
of labour is limited to unmarried males.

The case of woman is different. If she is a free woman her minimum wage
will be what is required to support herself alone, and since a woman
appears able to keep alive and in working condition on a lower scale of
expenditure than man, the possible minimum wage for independent women-
workers will be less than a single man would consent to work for, and
considerably less than what a married man would require. But there are
other economic causes more important than this which drag down women's

Single women, working to support themselves, are subject to the constant
competition of other women who are not dependent for their full
livelihood on the wages they get, and who, if necessary, are often
willing to take wages which would not keep them alive if they had no
other source of income. The minimum wages which can be obtained for
certain kinds of work may by this competition of "bounty-fed" labour be
driven considerably below starvation point. This is no mere hypothesis.
It will be obvious that the class of fur-sewers who, as we saw, earned
while in full work from 4s. to 7s. in the winter months, and the lower
grades of brush-makers and match-makers, to say nothing of the casual
"out-workers," who often take for a whole week's work 3s. or 2s. 6d.,
cannot, and do not, live upon these earnings. They must either die upon
them, as many in fact do, or else they must be assisted by other funds.

There are, at least, three classes of female workers whose competition
helps to keep wages below the point of bare subsistence in the
employments which they enter.

First, there are married women who in their eagerness to increase the
family income, or to procure special comforts for themselves, are
willing to work at what must be regarded as "uncommercial rates"; that
is to say, for lower wages than they would be willing to accept if they
were working for full maintenance. It is sometimes asserted that since
these married women have not so strong a motive to secure work, they
will not, and in fact do not, undersell, and bring down the rate of
wages. But it must be admitted, firstly, that the very addition of their
number to the total of competitors for low-skilled work, forces down,
and keeps down, the price paid for that work; and secondly, that if they
choose, they are enabled to underbid at any time the labour of women
entirely dependent on themselves for support. The existence of this
competition of married women must be regarded as one of the reasons why
wages are low in women's employments.

Secondly, a large proportion of unmarried women live at home. Even if
they pay their parents the full cost of their keep, they can live more
cheaply than if they had to find a home for themselves. A large
proportion, however, of the younger women are partly supported at the
expense of their family, and work largely to provide luxuries in the
shape of dress, and other ornamental articles. Many of them will consent
to work long hours all week, for an incredibly low sum to spend on

Thirdly, there is the competition of women assisted by charity, or in
receipt of out-door poor relief. Sums paid by Boards of Guardians to
widows with young children, or assistance given by charitable persons to
aid women in distressed circumstances to earn a livelihood, will enable
these women to get work by accepting wages which would have been
impossible if they had not outside assistance to depend upon. It is thus
possible that by assisting a thoroughly deserving case, you may be
helping to drive down below starvation-point the wages of a class of

Probably a large majority of women-workers are to some extent bounty-fed
in one of these ways. In so far as they do receive assistance from one
of these sources, enabling them to accept lower wages than they could
otherwise have done, it should be clearly understood that they are
presenting the difference between the commercial and the uncommercial
price as a free gift to their employer, or in so far as competition will
oblige him to lower his prices, to the public, which purchases the
results of their work. But the most terrible effect of this uncommercial
competition falls on that miserable minority of their sisters who have
no such extra source of income, and who have to make the lower wages
find clothes, and shelter for themselves, and perhaps a family of
children. We hear a good deal about the jealousy of men, and the
difficulties male Trade Unions have sometimes thrown in the way of women
obtaining employment, which may seem to affect male interests. But
though there is doubtless some ground for these complaints, it should be
acknowledged that it is women who are the real enemies of women. Women's
wages in the "sweating" trades are almost incredibly low, because there
is an artificially large supply of women able and willing to take work
at these low rates.

It will be possible to raise the wages in these low-paid employments
only on condition that women will agree to refuse to undersell one
another beyond a certain point. A restriction in what is called "freedom
of competition" is the only direct remedy which can be applied by women
themselves. If women could be induced to refuse to avail themselves of
the terrible power conferred by these different forms of "bounty," their
wages could not fall below that 9s. or 10s. which would be required to
keep them alive, and would probably rise higher.

§ 8. What Trade Unionism can do for them. - A question which naturally
rises now is, how far combination in the form of Trade Unionism can
assist to raise the industrial condition of these women. The practical
power wielded by male Unions we saw was twofold. Firstly, by restricting
the supply of labour in their respective trades they raised its market
price, i.e. wages. Secondly, they could extract better conditions from
employers, by obliging the latter to deal with them as a single large
body instead of dealing with them as a number of individuals. How far
can women-workers effect these same ends by these same means?

Trade Unionism, so far as women are concerned, is yet in its infancy. In
1874, Mrs. Paterson established a society, now named the Women's Trades
Union Provident League, to try and establish combination among women in
their several trades. The first Union was that of women engaged in book-
binding, formed in September 1874. Since then a considerable number of
Unions have been formed among match-makers, dressmakers, milliners,
mantle-makers, upholstresses, rope-makers, confectioners, box-makers,
shirt-makers, umbrella-makers, brush-makers and others. Many of these
have been formed to remedy some pressing grievance, or to secure some
definite advance of wage, and in certain cases of skilled factory work
where the women have maintained a steady front, as among the match-
makers and the confectioners, considerable concessions have been won
from employers. But the small scale and tentative character of most of
these organizations do not yet afford any adequate test of what Unionism
can achieve. The workers in a few factories here and there have formed a
Union of, at the most, a few hundred workers. No large women's trade has
yet been organized with anything approaching the size and completeness
of the stronger men's Unions. Women Trade Unionists numbered 120,178 in
1901, and of these no less than 89.9 per cent were textile workers,
whose Unions are mostly organized by and associated with male Unions.

There are several reasons why the growth of effective organization among
women-workers must be slow. In the first place, as we have seen, a large
proportion of their work is "out work" done at home or in small domestic
workshops. Now labour organizations are necessarily strong and
effective, in proportion as the labourers are thrown together constantly
both in their work and in their leisure, have free and frequent
opportunities of meeting and discussion, of educating a sense of
comradeship and mutual confidence, which shall form a moral basis of
unity for common industrial action. But to the majority of women-workers
no such opportunities are open. Even the factory workers are for the
most part employed in small groups, and are dispersed in their homes.
Combination among the mass of home-workers or workers in small sweating
establishments is almost impossible. The women's Unions have hitherto
been successful in proportion as the trades are factory trades. Where
endeavours have been made to organize East End shirt-makers, milliners,
and others who work at home, very little has been achieved. In those
trades where it is possible to give out an indefinite amount of the work
to sub-contractors, or to workers to do at home, it seems impossible
that any great results can be thus attained. Even in trades where part
of the work is done in factories, the existence of reckless competition
among unorganized out-workers can be utilized by unprincipled employers
to destroy attempts at effective combination among their factory hands.
The force of public opinion which may support an organization of factory
workers by preventing outsiders from underselling, can have no effect
upon the competition of home-workers, who bid in ignorance of their
competitors, and bid often for the means of keeping life in themselves
and their children. The very poverty of the mass of women-workers, the
low industrial conditions, which Unionism seeks to relieve, form cruel
barriers to the success of their attempts. The low physical condition,
the chronic exhaustion produced by the long hours and fetid atmosphere
in which the poorer workers live, crush out the human energy required
for effective protest and combination. Moreover, the power to strike,
and, if necessary, to hold out for a long period of time, is an
essential to a strong Trade Union. Almost all the advantages won by
women's Unions have been won by their proved capacity for holding out
against employers. This is largely a matter of funds. It is almost
impossible for the poorest classes of women-workers to raise by their
own abstinence a fund which shall make their Union formidable. Their
efforts where successful have been always backed by outside assistance.
Even were there a close federation of Unions of various women's trades -
a distant dream at present - the larger proportion of recipients of low
wages among women-workers as compared with men would render their
success more difficult.

§ 9. Legislative Restriction and the force of Public Opinion. - If Trade
Unionism among women is destined to achieve any large result, it would
appear that it will require to be supported by two extra-Union forces.

The first of these forces must consist of legislative restriction of
"out-work." If all employers of women were compelled to provide
factories, and to employ them there in doing that work at present done
at home or in small and practically unapproachable workshops, several
wholesome results would follow. The conditions of effective combination
would be secured, public opinion would assist in securing decent wages,
factory inspection would provide shorter hours and fair sanitary
conditions, and last, not least, women whose home duties precluded them
from full factory work would be taken out of the field of competition.
Whether it would be possible to successfully crush the whole system of
industrial "out-work" may be open to question; but it is certain that so
long as, and in proportion as "out-work" is permitted, attempts on the
part of women to raise their industrial condition by combination will be
weak and unsuccessful. So long as "out-work" continues to be largely
practised and unrestrained, competition sharpened by the action of
married women and other irregular and "bounty-fed" labour, must keep
down the price of women's work, not only for the out-workers themselves,
but also for the factory workers. Nor is it possible to see how the
system of "out-work" can be repressed or even restricted by any other
force than legislation. So long as home-workers are "free" to offer, and
employers to accept, this labour, it will continue to exist so long as
it pays; it will pay so long as it is offered cheap enough; and it will
be offered cheaply so long as the supply continues to bear the present
relation to the demand.

But there is another force required to give any full effect to such
extensions of the Factory Act as will crush private workshops, and
either directly or indirectly prohibit out-work. The real reason, as we
saw, why woman's wages were proportionately lower than man's, was the
competition of a mass of women, able and willing to work at indefinitely
low rates, because they were wholly or partly supported from other
sources. Now legislation can hardly interfere to prevent this
competition, but public opinion can. If the greater part of the
industrial work now done by women at home were done in factories, this
fact in itself would offer some restrictions to the competition of
married women, which is so fatal to those who depend entirely upon their
wages for a livelihood. But the gradual growth of a strong public
opinion, fed by a clear perception of the harm married women do to their
unsupported sisters by their competition, and directed towards the
establishment of a healthy social feeling against the wage-earning
proclivities of married women, would be a far more wholesome as well as
a more potent method of interference than the passing of any law.

To interfere with the work of young women living at home, and supported
in large part by their parents, would be impracticable even if it were
desirable, although the competition of these conduces to the same
lowering of women's wages. But the education of a strong popular
sentiment against the propriety of the industrial labour of married
women, would be not only practicable, but highly desirable. Such a
public sentiment would not at first operate so stringently as to
interfere in those exceptional cases where it seems an absolute
necessity that the wife should aid by her home or factory work the
family income. But a steady pressure of public opinion, making for the
closer restriction of the wage-work of married women, would be of
incomparable value to the movement to secure better industrial
conditions for those women who are obliged to work for a living. A
fuller, clearer realization of the importance of this subject is much
needed at the present time. The industrial emancipation of women,
favoured by the liberal sentiments of the age, has been eagerly utilized
by enterprising managers of businesses in search of the cheapest labour.
Not only women, but also children are enabled, owing to the nature of
recent mechanical inventions which relieve the physical strain, but
increase the monotony of labour, to make themselves useful in factories
or home-work. Each year sees a large growth in the ranks of women-
workers. Eager to earn each what she can, girls and wives alike rush
into factory work, reckless of the fact that their very readiness to
work tells against them in the amount of their weekly wages, and only
goes to swell the dividends of the capitalist, or perhaps eventually to
lower prices. The improving mechanism of our State School System assists
this movement, by turning out every year a larger percentage of half-
timers, crammed to qualify for wage-earners at the earliest possible
period. Already in Lancashire and elsewhere, the labour of these
thirteen-year-olders is competing with the labour of their fathers. The
substitution of the "ring" for the "mule" in Lancashire mills, is
responsible for the sight which may now be seen, of strong men lounging
about the streets, supported by the earnings of their own children, who
have undersold them in the labour market. The "ring" machine can be
worked by a child, and can be learned in half an hour; that is the sole
explanation of this deplorable phenomenon.

In the case of child-work, with its degrading consequences on the
physical and mental health of the victim thus prematurely thrust into
the struggle of life, legislation can doubtless do much. By raising the
standard of education, and, if necessary, by an absolute prohibition of
child-work, the State would be keeping well within the powers which the
strictest individualist would assign to it, as it would be merely
protecting the rising generation against the cupidity of parents and the
encroachments of industrial competition.

The case of married women-workers is different. Better education of
women in domestic work and the requirements of wifehood and motherhood;
the growth of a juster and more wholesome feeling in the man, that he
may refuse to demand that his wife add wage-work to her domestic
drudgery; and above all, a clearer and more generally diffused
perception in society of the value of healthy and careful provision for
the children of our race, should build up a bulwark of public opinion,
which shall offer stronger and stronger obstruction to the employment of
married women, either outside or inside the home, in the capacity of

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Online LibraryJohn A. HobsonProblems of Poverty → online text (page 12 of 17)