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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon

Chapter XIV. — Labour Legislation

page 223

Chapter XIV.
Labour Legislation.

It has been possible in this account of Mr. Seddon's career to follow the history of the Liberal Party in the order in which important events have occurred, touching upon each in turn and in its proper place. With Mr. Seddon's appointment to the Premiership, however, there began an extraordinary period of legislative activity. Measure followed measure with astonishing rapidity, and a far-reaching policy in one department of public affairs ran parallel with an equally comprehensive and sensational policy in another department. These policy measures were largely experimental in their operation, and they had to be amended in almost every session of Parliament. It is, therefore, not easy to keep strictly to the general course of events during Mr. Seddon's Premiership. A better plan is to take each subject separately and briefly sketch its scope and the results it has brought about.

As the Ministry was generally known at first as a Labour Government, it seems fitting that its labour legislation should be placed at the head of the list of its achievements.

Nobody claims that no labour legislation was passed in New Zealand before the Liberal Party came into power in 1891. From its earliest days the colony has been of an experimental turn of mind, and among its very early enactments there are measures dealing with the conditions under which daily work is carried on. Those who left the Old Country to build up a new nation in the furthermost ends of the earth brought with them new ideas and new conditions, and they frankly expressed a hope that the bad features of life in the country they were leaving would not be perpetuated. This may account largely for the readiness with which the experimental legislation of 1891–1906 has been accepted by the people of the colony. page 224 It may also account for a great deal of the success achieved, as the people have shown that they are quite willing to give their hearty co-operation in trying anything that is likely to improve social conditions.

Although there was some labour legislation before 1891, it was of a crude character, and could not be made operative because its machinery was faulty. The idea was good, but the framers of the Acts lacked the practical knowledge required to make the measures effective, and, apparently, they did not take the trouble to seek expert advice.

The year 1873 saw the first enactment regarding factories. It is the Employment of Females Act, and it was introduced by Mr. J. B. Bradshaw, who was the author of several measures to improve the conditions of the workers. Very little interest was taken in it by members of the House. The Bill was copied from a Victorian Act. It was of a precautionary character, and was designed to prevent abuses that had sprung up in Melbourne and Sydney. It affirmed the principle of the eighthours day as far as women and girls were concerned, allowed no one to employ women or girls at night, gave them a halfholiday on Saturday afternoon in each week, and a whole holiday on Sunday, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, “and any other day set apart as a public holiday,” without loss of wages; it authorised Resident Magistrates to appoint factory inspectors, and it provided for the proper ventilation of workrooms.

Parliament passed the Bill in a perfectly uninterested mood. There was practically no discussion on it, and it just slipped through and went on to the Statute Book to lay the foundation of the mass of factory regulations that have been brought into force since.

There were very few factories in New Zealand at that time, only 195 women and girls being employed in workrooms, and that fact accounts for the little interest it created. A few women and girls were employed in Auckland, Dunedin, Wellington, and Christchurch, mainly in making up clothing. What was most required at the time was a drastic measure to regulate the employment of children in the flax-mills. Boys and girls were page 225 employed in the mills in large numbers and under conditions that should never have been allowed. There were several attempts to introduce Bills to place the conditions in the flaxmills on a better footing, but nothing definite seems to have come of these efforts.

The Act of 1873 provided that girls should not be employed before 9 o'clock in the morning, but in the following year that provision was altered so that the hour was fixed at 8 o'clock; the limit at which they could be employed in the evening was left at 6 o'clock. The eight-hours day was still retained, and factory legislation of later days was foreshadowed by a provision that all employers should forward statements to the Resident Magistrates' Courts showing the hours during which the women and girls worked. As far as can be gathered from the records, the Act made a marked improvement in the workrooms, “miserable shanties” we are told, “giving place to fine lofty buildings.”

In those days, however, labour legislation was viewed with less favour than it gained later, and it was not long before the cry of the freedom of the individual was raised. There was only one individual in this case. It was a woollen mill, which carried on business in Otago. The mill was in a bad financial position, one-half of its shares being on the market at a discount. It asked that the Act should be modified, otherwise it would have to close its premises. Mr. Donald Reid, in whose district the mill had been established, introduced an amending Bill, which swept away the half-holiday and otherwise modified the Act in a manner that was favourable to the owners of woollen mills. Mr. Reid's action caused much indignation among the workers, and there began, probably, the first serious agitation in respect to labour legislation. Meetings were held in Dunedin and Christchurch to protest against Mr. Reid's action. At Christchurch the meeting was attended by “quite 300 persons,” which was evidently looked upon as a large gathering. It was unanimously decided that it would be prejudicial to the best interests of the community to allow the hours of female labour to be increased or to allow night work to be substituted for day work. There were loud protestations by parents and guardians of children. page 226 Mr. Bradshaw, Mr. Rolleston, and Mr. C. C. Bowen, the present Speaker of the Legislative Council, resisted the attempt; but they were not successful, and the amendment went through.

In other directions, however, the Act was extended, and boys, as well as girls, were brought under its provisions. No person under the age of ten was to be employed in a factory; children had to be employed on morning or afternoon shifts, or, if for a whole day, on alternate days; provision was made for meal times; and the Act did not apply to saleswomen, who, however, could not be detained for work after the closing of the shops.

This Act and its two amendments, with their crude provisions and their lack of details, were allowed to remain in force until 1881, when Mr. Thomas Dick, Colonial Secretary in Sir John Hall's Ministry, consolidated the law in a measure entitled the Employment of Females and Others Act. This Bill was passed with very little discussion and no amendment. It is a slovenly piece of work. One clause forbade the employment of any person under the age of twelve in a factory, and another allowed child-labour between the ages of 10 and 14. These two clashing clauses remained in that condition until 1884. In 1885 an amendment extended the hours of labour for women in fruit-preserving and fish-curing establishments and in printing establishments. It also allowed the selection of some other day than Saturday for the weekly half-holiday for women and young people engaged in factories.

It was not until 1882 that legislation was passed dealing with the liability of employers. In that year an Employers' Liability Act became law. It came from Mr. M. W. Green. He pointed out that there were many cases in which men were injured while at their work, and that they had no means of obtaining compensation for their injuries, even when they were the result of culpable negligence on the part of the employers. The measure was designed to protect the workmen. The Act was based on one in force in England, brought into operation two years previously, and it has been altered to meet the requirements of the colony. It was the first Act of the kind introduced into New Zealand. It was drafted very carefully, page 227 several members of Parliament who practised as lawyers going through its provisions and comparing them with those in the English Act. The New Zealand Act gave workmen the right of claiming compensation for death or injuries received by the negligence of a fellow-servant, or sustained by accident in consequence of defective ways, machinery, and plant, or incurred in carrying out legitimate instructions. The workman lost his right to complaint, however, if he knew of any defect or negligence and concealed his knowledge, as it was held that such conduct was the action of a man who willingly incurred risk.

The Act was recognised as a completely new departure in the colony's legislation, and several members of the House said that it was evidently a measure that would give bare justice to the workers and place them on a much better footing. The Bill had its opponents outside of Parliament. The worst they said of it, however, was that it was Utopian in character, and would not work well. There was not a word said against it in the House, and it was so well received that Mr. Green thanked the members who had spoken, and he accepted the assistance of several members who promised to act as members of a Select Committee to consider the Bill in detail.

The colony first dealt with the complex question of payment of wages in an Act passed in 1871. It is the Contractors' Debts Act, and it allows a workman to obtain money due to a contractor who has failed to pay wages. It broke down owing to the sub-contracting that took place at that time. The Act, however, met with the general approval of the people as far as its principle was concerned.

In 1884 the Workmen's Wages Act was passed. It repealed previous Acts, remedied their defects, and made the position quite clear. Under it, a workman whose wages are unpaid for 24 hours might summon an employer before a Resident Magistrate and obtain permission to serve a notice of attachment of moneys on the employer's employer, and, on judgment being given in the workman's favour, the money attached, after seven days, became payable to the workman. The machinery for recovery was cumbrous. The workman often put in hi demand page 228 when the contract money had been paid in full, or even in advance; but it was an improvement upon its predecessors, and was in constant use for nearly ten years. In 1888 the Hon. A. R. Guinness, now Speaker of the House of Representatives, introduced a Workman's Wages Bill. It provided that wages must be paid within three days after the termination of the engagement or within a day after discharge in case of a worker being dismissed. This Bill, however, did not pass.

There were a few other measures dealing with labour in operation in those days, but, as has been stated, they were crude, and, in many respects, inoperative in practice. A Master and Apprentice Bill, for instance, was passed as early as 1865. It extended to New Zealand the laws of England dealing with relations between masters and apprentices. It provided for apprentices being taken on in the Government departments; it enabled destitute children to be apprenticed by charitable institutions; and it allowed householders, tradesmen, farmers, and others to take children over twelve years of age and have them legally indentured. This Act also was largely inoperative.

The colony did not provide for the registration of Trades Unions until 1878, when Sir Robert Stout, as Attorney-General in Sir George Grey's famous short-lived Liberal Government, introduced the first Trades Union Bill, which he saw through its stages and on to the Statute Book. In drafting his measure, he followed the English Acts of 1871 and 1876 closely. He brought in no fresh provisions affecting unions, and the only new features of the Bill were those that made it apply to New Zealand. It provided that certain actions should not be lawful, and that Trades Unions should be registered in the same way as friendly societies. The Grey Government had discussed this subject when it first took office, and it came to the conclusion that Trades Unions in New Zealand had a right to be placed on the same footing as similar institutions in England. Workmen, the Government argued, should not be prevented from selling their labour at as high a price as possible.

It must not be thought that this was New Zealand's first recognition of Trades Unionism. The principle had been recognised by Parliament when it passed the Law Society's page 229 Act, enabling that society to pass rules for the protection of lawyers. Sir George Grey's Government took that as an affirmation of the principle of Trades Unionism. There was obviously no reason why a law that had acted upon a branch of business should not apply to men who were forming unions in the factories, workrooms, and other centres of industrial life. Several unions had been established in the colony; they were weak bodies, and their influence was small, but Sir Robert Stout and other members of the Government said that if they desired to be recognised as unions, the colony had no right to refuse legal recognition. In Auckland, Christchurch, and other centres, joiners, cord-wainers, engineers, and other tradesmen had united in self-protection, but they found that they had little chance of making anything like good progress unless they were able to pass such a measure as the one introduced by Sir Robert Stout. The Bill did not attract much attention, and was not opposed in any way. All members agreed that the request of the workers for protection was entirely reasonable, and several said that the Bill was desired by the colony as a whole, as it would enable associations of workers to approach employers of labour in a proper manner, and to satisfy their just demands.

This brief summary fairly represents the extent of labour legislation up to the advent of the last phase of the Continuous Ministry, from 1887 to 1890. During that time, quite a batch of labour measures was introduced by members of that Ministry, but Sir Harry Atkinson's Governments always took up a weak and hesitating attitude towards labour legislation, and none of those measures, which included an Eight Hours' Bill, a Shop Hours Bill, and an Employment of Females Bill, became law.

Several attempts have been made by private members to pass Eight Hours Bills. From the first foundation of the colony eight hours were generally regarded as a fair day's work, and there were few employers in the early days who asked for more. For some reason that is not clear, the principle always found enthusiastic supporters in Dunedin, Scotch immigrants to that part of the colony having stoutly maintained from the page 230 first that the system should prevail in all their dealings, whether as employers or workers. The Rev. Thomas Burns, a nephew of Robert Burns, is given the credit for its introduction into Dunedin. Mindful of the overtaxed and underpaid labourers he had left behind him in Scotland, he assured his people on the “Philip Laing,” as they voyaged out to the new land in 1848, that as far as he had any influence their day's work in Otago should consist of eight hours, and should be paid at 3s. 6d. or 4s. a day. To this promise, as almost the sole employer of labour in Dunedin at that time, he faithfully adhered, although another scale fixed by the New Zealand Company remained unaltered for more than a year until abandoned by the force of strong opinion.

Mr. S. D. Parnell, who resided in Wellington for many years and died there in December, 1890, at the age of 85 years, has some claim to the honour of being the first workman to establish the eight hours principle in New Zealand. He was a builder and contractor. He was a native of London, and left for New Zealand in 1839. He landed at Petone, which was then selected as the site of the capital of Wellington province, on February 7th, 1840.

In England Mr. Parnell had devoted much study to social subjects, and he was imbued with the idea that in the new country in which he had determined to make a home eight hours ought to be the measure of a day's work. On the voyage he became acquainted with Mr. G. Hunter, a fellow passenger. A few weeks after their arrival, Mr. Hunter sent for him and told him that he had brought out from the Old Country a large quantity of stores. Further supplies were coming, but he had no place for them. He therefore asked Parnell to erect a building for him. Parnell consented to do so, but as soon as he commenced he demanded that there should be only eight hours work a day. Hunter declared that the proposal was absurd and preposterous.

“There are eight hours for sleep, eight hours for labour, and men do require some little time for themselves,” Parnell maintained; “therefore there must be eight hours for recreation.” “That's all nonsense!” Hunter replied. “You page 231 must know very well that with us in London the bell rang at 6 o'clock, and if the men were not there to turn to, they lost a quarter of a day.” “Very well,” Parnell said. “I've plenty of work I can do for myself, and if you don't care to accept my terms I can't help you to put up your building.” He turned and walked away. He had not gone far before he was called back, and was asked to go on with the work on the eight-hours principle. The little strike was successful. It could not have been otherwise, seeing that there were only three carpenters in Petone at that time.

Parnell set to at once, and engaged what unskilled labour he could find. “Don't forget,” he said to the men, “that I've bargained for only eight hours a day; work to begin at eight o'clock. Mind you stick to that!”

The chief mover in the agitation for legislative recognition of the principle was Mr. Bradshaw, a resident of Dunedin. In three different sessions he introduced his Eight Hours Bill, and was supported by Mr. Seddon on each occasion. The Bill did hardly anything more than declare that eight hours should be a day's work, and 48 hours a week's work. It had only one clause, and it was introduced by Mr. Bradshaw in a few words.

“It's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of in my life,” one member said when Mr. Bradshaw sat down, after moving the second reading in 1885. “It will come to this, that we won't be able to get a boy to clean our boots unless we enter into an agreement with him to do it.” This member was afraid that if the House discussed the Bill seriously the whole country would laugh at it.

Sir Robert Stout, who was then Premier, supported the Bill on the ground that New Zealand was likely to become a manufacturing country, and that it was necessary to look after the physical well-being of the working classes. He said that it was surely not much to ask Parliament to simply declare what it believed should constitute a fair day's work. In that year, as in the previous one, the proposal was defeated. In 1886, Mr. Bradshaw was again before the House with his Bill. He said that the principle of eight hours a day was generally recognised page 232 in the colony, but there should be something more; Parliament itself should say that when a man had worked for eight hours he had done as much as could reasonably be expected of him. Mr. Bradshaw again found a supporter in Mr. Seddon, who had lately had cases brought under his notice in which attempts were made to increase the hours of labour. He stated instances where men had to go down into the mines on the West Coast, expose themselves to water and dynamite-fumes, and take risks and dangers for eight hours, and their employers endeavoured to add an hour to their day's work. The employers' action had precipitated a small but irritating strike. Mr. Seddon always felt that a man could do justice to both himself and his employer in eight hours, and as there had been several attempts to break through the eight hours system, he was more firmly convinced than ever that the Bill ought to be passed. At the same time, he thought that it could not very well be applied to farm labourers and domestic servants. The Bill was again denounced as being “vicious,” “intolerable,” and “oppressive.”

Mr. Bradshaw died in 1886, and Sir George Grey took up the proposal in 1887, when it was supported by Mr. Seddon and Sir Robert Stout. Sir George was not very enthusiastic in pressing the Bill on the House. It passed its second reading successfully, but had to be dropped. In 1889 it appeared in charge of Mr. R. M. Taylor, of Sydenham. It was received with more opposition than ever; it passed its third reading in the House, but failed to make any further progress. In 1891, Mr. W. P. Reeves introduced an Eight Hours Bill, but it also had to be dropped before it reached the Statute Book. It spite of all these determined attempts, the colony is still without an Eight Hours Act; the principle, however, is affirmed in a clause of the Factories Act, passed by the Ballance Government, and when Mr. Seddon introduced his Coal-mine Bill in the first year of his Ministry, he had a clause inserted making eight hours a day's work in a coal-mine.

In 1885 there was introduced, first into the Legislative Council and then into the House of Representatives, a remarkable labour measure, but of a different type from those that Mr. page 233 Seddon and his colleagues took in hand. Its title was the “Threats and Molestations Bill.” It was designed to deliver a staggering blow at Trades Unionism. It is stated that the Bill really had its origin in a coal-lumpers' dispute at Lyttelton. The provisions it contained could hardly have been more drastic. It provided for sending to prison for a term not exceeding three months any person who induced others to quit their work, or interfered in any of the ways usually adopted by unionists when strikes were contemplated or were in progress. It prohibited people from belonging to any temporary or permanent trade association or combination, and would not allow any fines imposed by such a body to be paid. Nobody was to be allowed to persistently follow any person from place to place, to hide tools, clothes, or other property, or to watch opposite any house or workshop. The Bill, in fact, which contained only half-a-dozen clauses, prohibited Trades Unionism and made “picketing” a penal offence.

It was introduced into the Legislative Council by Sir P. Buckley and into the House by Sir Robert Stout, who was Premier. Neither of those gentlemen, however, took a hand in drafting it. They took it up at the request of a member of the Legislative Council, who was well known to be opposed to unionism, and introduced it as an obligement to him. It was a copy of an English Act then in force. When it came before the House, Mr. Seddon, who expressed surprise at the head of the Government introducing such a Bill to the House of Representatives, explained that the English Act had been passed only after serious outrages had been committed. Nothing of that nature had taken place in New Zealand. To ask the House to pass a Bill of that description seemed to him to be asking it to legislate in the interests of capital against labour. He saw no necessity for the Bill, and he looked upon its introduction as an insult to the working men of New Zealand.

There was only a small number of members present, and it was in the very last moments of the session. The Bill, in fact, was the last business dealt with by Parliament in 1885. It was introduced without any explanation as to its provisions or effect, and had not Mr. Seddon been on the alert, scanning every proposal page 234 with care, it would have quietly passed into law. When he had drawn attention to it, he was supported by Mr. W. Montgomery and Mr. Moss. Sir Robert Stout explained that he had not realised the scope of the measure, and it was withdrawn and discharged.

In accordance with its promises, the Liberal Government brought in several labour Bills in the session of 1891. It had hardly had time to prepare a large labour programme, however, and some of the schemes it proposed then were not sufficiently thought out, and had to be withdrawn until later sessions.

The first labour Act passed by the new Liberal Government was the Truck Act, which prohibits the payment of wages in goods or in any way except in money. No contractor is allowed to make reductions from wages on account of interest, no employer is to stipulate the mode of spending wages, which must be paid at intervals of not more than one month, if demanded; and no set-off must be allowed for goods supplied to the workman by the employer. It was stated that this Bill would bring hardships upon many workers, but the same statement had been made against nearly all labour legislation, and the framers of the Bill did not place much weight upon the objection. The Act, of course, was levelled at a serious abuse which had arisen in the colony, especially in large contracts, and which had grown to a large extent, workmen in some cases having to pay back nearly all their wages to their employer or his agents, or some storekeeper or other tradesman in whose business he had a personal or financial interest. The abuse was stopped as soon as the measure became law, on November 1st, 1891, and it is now agreed that the Truck Act stands out as one of the best labour Acts the colony possesses. It has a fitting position at the top of a long list of labour Acts passed by the Liberal Government.

In the same year the Employers' Liability Act was amended in several directions. The definition of the word “workman” in the old Act of 1882 was extended, and was made very comprehensive. It now means “any person, male or female, under or over the age of twenty-one, who, under contract with an employer, contracts personally to do any work or manual labour of any kind, whether technical, skilled, or unskilled, and whether page 235 such contract is oral or in writing, express or implied.” Seamen are included in the definition, but not domestic servants. There are special provisions dealing with remedies for injury to seamen. In hearing a case the Court is instructed to take into consideration the value of payments made by an employer to the person injured, and also payments made to an insurance fund. If a workman knows of a defect that leads to an accident, he is not deemed to have voluntarily incurred risk, but if a workman does not inform an employer that the defect exists, he cannot recover damages. No workman can recover damages if the accident is caused by his own negligence.

It has been stated that the Continuous Ministry introduced several labour measures in the last days of its life. Two of these, a Shops Bill and a Factories Bill, were the outcome of the Royal Commission appointed in 1889 to inquire into sweating. Neither of the Bills was passed, but a portion of the Factories Bill was taken up by the Liberal Government in 1891, and it became law. It did not go very far, and in 1894, after the country had declared its decision in regard to Mr. Seddon's Government and its labour policy, a more advanced Bill was passed. Quite a new departure in factory legislation dates from that time.

In 1901 Mr. Seddon's Government passed a consolidating Factories Act, which, it is claimed, is one of the most complete and perfect laws to be found on the Statute Book of any colony. The Acts passed before 1901 dealt almost exclusively with the protection of women and children, but the Act now regulates the working hours of men. It provides for payment for overtime. Women and youths cannot be employed for more than forty-five hours a week, except in woollen mills, where forty-eight hours are allowed, and if men are employed for more than forty-eight hours in a week they must be paid overtime.

Factory inspectors are constantly on the alert in all parts of the colony, with unlimited powers in regard to investigation and inquiry. All factories must be registered. Plans must be submitted of all new factories, and inspectors may have them altered to remedy defects. A small registration fee is charged in regard to factories, and the fee increases with the increased number of employees

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A factory is defined as any room where two or more persons are employed in connection with a handicraft or in preparing or manufacturing goods for trade or sale. It includes bakehouses, buildings in which machinery is used for preparing articles for trade or for packing goods for export, and all places in which Asiatics are employed, even if only one of them is at work. The occupier is deemed to be one of the workers. No workroom is too small to come within the definition, and there are no bodies of employees engaged in factory work who do not come under the regulations.

A limit is placed on the overtime that may be worked. No man, woman, girl or boy can be employed on overtime in a factory for more than four hours at a stretch without having at least half-an-hour for rest and refreshment. Payment for overtime is fixed at a quarter more than the ordinary rate. There are strict regulations to prevent women, girls, and boys being subjected to wet or dampness or to the steam from hot water. They are not allowed to remain in workrooms at all during meal-time, except by special permission of the inspectors, and where more than four are employed a dining-room must be supplied. Girls and boys under fourteen years of age cannot be employed in factories unless permission is obtained. No girl under fifteen years of age can be employed at type-setting in a printing office; neither girls nor boys under sixteen can be employed in a room where there is any grinding in the metal trade or where matches are dipped; no girl under sixteen can be employed where salt or bricks or tiles are being made or finished; if she is under eighteen, she cannot be employed in connection with the melting or annealing of glass; and neither girls nor boys under eighteen can be employed in a room where mirrors are silvered by the mercurial process, or where white lead is made. Besides that, no girls or boys under sixteen can be employed in a factory in any capacity unless the proprietor obtains a certificate of the young person's fitness. This certificate is given by the inspector, who has to see that the youth is fit for the employment and has passed the fourth standard.

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There are special provisions to prevent sweating in connection with work given out and done in the workers' homes. These are so stringent that sweating in the colony is practically impossible as far as factory work is concerned. One set of regulations prevents workers being employed without reasonable pay. Persons under twenty years of age must be paid at least 5s. a week for the first year, with an annual increase of at least 3s. a week until they are twenty years of age. The proprietor of the factory is allowed a week's grace in paying wages. After that, if the wages are not paid, he is liable to a penalty up to 5s. for every day during which the wages are unpaid. Meals cannot be taken in rooms where noxious processes are carried on. There are rules to prevent accidents from machinery and fire. The sanitation regulations, which are very drastic, are designed to protect the public as well as the workers.