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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter XVII. — Fall in the Wages of Labour

Chapter XVII.

Fall in the Wages of Labour.

Just as commerce, after having been unduly stimulated in 1871, 1872, and 1873, has since been suffering from the consequent reaction, so wages, after rising enormously during the same period, were affected by the same reaction, and have been from that time gradually falling. The well-being of the wage-receivers, or working men, has fluctuated with that of the profit-receivers, or capitalists. In both page 67 instances the intoxication arising from sudden and inordinate prosperity led to improvidence and rashness. The employers were tempted into erecting too many new mills and factories, or into working poor mines that could only pay as long as prices continued exceptionally high. The operatives, in most of the flourishing industries, not content with an advance of from 30 to 120 per cent, on their former wages, insisted on working shorter hours, and on lessening the value of that work by unsteadiness and unpunctuality. In the coal districts they adopted the suicidal policy of limiting the output with a view of enhancing prices and keeping wages up; as if the smaller the harvest the more food there would be for everybody. This policy was very much akin to that of the Dutch formerly, who are said to have burnt all the spices their tropical islands produced beyond a certain quantity, in order to enhance their value. When, after the unnatural inflation, demand subsided into its legitimate channels, wages gradually fell, and have continued to fall, in sympathy with, but not in the same proportion as, the reduced profits of capital and the lessened prices of commodities.

Against this decline the wage-receivers have (as is natural and excusable) fought inch by inch. By concerted action, by strikes, by the partial adoption of co-operation, and by every weapon which trade-unionism put in their hands, they opposed all the resistance in their power to the reduction of their wage. But the irresistible course of events proved too strong for them, and they had to yield.

In former times the effects of such severe and protracted commercial depression as that which we have gone through would have been visible in the general destitution of the people, in mass meetings of hundreds of thousands of unemployed workmen, in an immense increase of pauperism, and in lawless and destructive riots, such as were of periodical recurrence a generation or two ago, when we were a highly "protected" people. That nothing of the kind should have occurred in the present day, is no doubt partly due to the better education and softer manners that now prevail among the working men, but it must be page 68 observed that the fall in prices has pressed far more heavily on the mercantile than on the operative classes. If the latter received less pay than before, on the other hand, their outgoings were less, and there was more than a proportionate reduction in the cost of living. Moreover, in consequence of the fact, to which we have adverted, of the volume of our productions not having diminished since the culminating period of excitement, 1872, there was plenty of work to be done, although it might be paid for at a lower rate. If there was less employment for labour in some branches of our industries, there was more of it in others, and the surplus in the former quickly became absorbed in the latter. That the transition from high to moderate wages has not inflicted severe distress on the wage-receivers and that the condition of the bulk of the people has been continuously improving, is made evident by the following facts:—

1. Pauperism has decreased. Here are the numbers of the paupers relieved yearly in England and Wales since 1871:—
1871 1,081,926
1872 977,664
1873 890,372
1874 829,281
1875 815,587
1876 749,593
1877 728,350
1878 742,703
2. Emigration has decreased. The yearly number since 1871 of emigrants from the United Kingdom to America, Australia, and other places, is given below:—
1871 192,751
1872 210,494
1873 228,345
1874 197,272
1875 140,675
1876 109,460
1877 95,105

Against the 95,105 emigrants in 1877, there were no less than 81,848 immigrants.

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3. Convictions for criminal offences are fewer relatively to the population. Here are the numbers of the convictions for the United Kingdom and of the population since 1871:—
Convictions. Population.
1871 16,387 31,513,000
1872 15,686 31,836,000
1873 15,741 32,125,000
1874 16,107 32,426,000
1875 15,643 32,749,000
1876 16,590 33,093,000
1877 16,255 33,447,000
4. The Excise has yielded a larger revenue. Here are the yearly amounts since 1871:—
1871 £23,339,000
1872 23,386,000
1873 25,904,000
1874 27,116,000
1875 27,254,000
1876 28,300,000
1877 28,408,000
1878 28,381,000
5. The people consume more per head of sugar, tea, tobacco, and imported food than ever. We give the average annual consumption of the following articles per head of the total population of the United Kingdom in lbs. and 100ths of lbs.:—
In Lbs. and 100ths of Lbs. 1871. 1872. 1873. 1874. 1875. 1876. 1877.
Bacon ...lbs. 1.38 5.44 9.07 7.84 8.26 9.49 8.04
Wheat & Flour lbs. 150.63 162.86 170.79 162.11 197.08 167.80 203.26
Sugar (Raw) lbs. 41.40 41.18 43.96 47.48 53.97 50.16 54.06
Tea .... lbs. 3.92 4.01 4.11 4.23 4.44 4.60 4.52
Tobacco lbs. 1.36 1.37 1.41 1.44 1.46 1.47 1.49
6. The deposits in the Savings Banks have increased. Below is a statement showing the amount invested in both page 70 the Trustees' Savings Banks and the Post Office Savings Banks, year by year, from 1871 to 1877:—
1871 £55,844,667
1872 59,406,687
1873 61,667,884
1874 64,663,418
1875 67,595.114
1876 70,280,120
1877 72,979,443

We come therefore to the conclusion that while the wages of labour have undergone a considerable decline since the extravagant rise of 1871—1873, it is no less certain that it has by no means seriously deteriorated the condition of either the wage-receiver or of the bulk of the community; and that it is the manufacturing and trading classes that have most suffered from the commercial depression that has prevailed for the last few years.