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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 76

IV.—"The Statute of Labourers Upside Down

IV.—"The Statute of Labourers Upside Down.

When one learns that nearly every industry in the colony has its award, one begins to see a strong resemblance between such awards and the "Statute of Labourers" of a Tudor tyrant, and to wonder whether the most progressive country in the world (in its own estimation) has gone to the fourteenth century for its notions of political economy. In New Zealand, methods essentially the same as those used in the fourteenth century by masters against men are now being used by workers against employers. In the fourteenth century, a Parliament of masters, because of the "insolence of the servants," who asked for higher wages than had been previously paid, "to the great detriment of the lords and commons," ordained that no person should refuse to labour for the same wages they were accustomed to receive in the twentieth year of the King's reign (1347), and that even the lords of the manor, if they paid higher wages, were to be fined in treble damages. Also that the lord was to have the first claim to the labour of the serf, and those who refused to work for him or others at the fixed price were to be sent to the common jail. Now, however, the tables are turned page 12 (and not before it was time), and the Workers' (unionists') Court, created by a workers' Parliament, ordains that the employer is not to pay the workman less than a certain minimum wage, and that he is not to employ a non-unionist except in case of his not being able to find a unionist, and if he gives a job to a non-unionist because he is poor and hungry, or if he pays less than the minimum wage to a man who is glad to get it because he knows he is not worth the minimum wage, the employer is to be sent to the common jail. The resemblance is indeed remarkable, and I am inclined to think the older ordinance was the more rational of the two, considering that the one was made in the fourteenth and the other in the enlightened nineteenth century. The older ordinance, whilst ordering the worker to work for a certain fixed wage a day, attempted to secure for him cheap food by enacting that food must be sold at reasonable prices; but our modern ordinance (award), whilst commanding employers to pay not less than a minimum wage, makes no attempt to secure for them a fair price for their goods or to compel the worker to accept employment at the minimum wage. All things considered, it is hard to say whether the old English ordinance is not as rational as the boasted product of "Liberalism" and enlightenment in New Zealand, the most progressive country in the world, "the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time."

This wonderful ordinance of the English masters remained on the Statute Book over 200 years, and for some time the fines and forfeitures levied under it formed a large source of Royal revenue; but in spite of Kings and Parliaments, and pains and penalties—even to branding of the forehead with a red-hot iron—it became impossible to enforce the law, for wages kept rising in spite of all. The landowners complained that the law was entirely inoperative, and Parliament obediently made further enactments; and in 1363 an act was passed fixing the quantity, quality, and price of both food and clothes the labourers should have. Our New Zealand Parliament is quite as subservient to its masters, the unions, as ever an English Parliament was to the landowners, and nothing will be wanting on its part to enable them to have their own way with that "social pest," the employer, and the fines levied for breaches of awards might become a useful source of revenue which might be devoted to the endowment of unionism. Already we hear of a proposal to prevent by legislation the reduction of wages when the boom is over, the counterpart of the old enactments fixing the quantity, quality, and price of the labourers' dress and food. Is history going to repeat itself, and political economy to be brought back from Saturn—the community paying the [unclear: expen] of the double journey?

In obedience to the demand of the [unclear: uni] our act has been altered almost every—not for the purpose of lessening its [unclear: se] able one-sidedness and unfairness to employers, but for the purpose of rendering [unclear: to] more efficient as a weapon of offence [unclear: ag] them. In fact, its most essential [unclear: feature] have been recast. Under the act of [unclear: 1895] awards were to be enforced by writ of attachment issued from the Supreme Court the unions were unsuccessful in their [unclear: for] attempts to obtain attachments, and they appealed to Parliament, which forthwith [unclear: endowed] the trades unions court with full powers. It was one of the essential feature of the original act that awards were not be legally enforceable unless the Court of [unclear: bitration] so declared by the award itsetf. [unclear: On] this point the author of the original [unclear: me] said:—"As the court is likely to consist [unclear: of] experienced and reasonable men, I do not think they are likely to misuse [unclear: the] powers placed in their hands, especially [unclear: when] we make it clear that they are only [unclear: to] such awards binding as they may [unclear: think] will be common sense to try and [unclear: enforce] law. Therefore I have steered this [unclear: middle] course of making some [unclear: awards] (legally enforceable), and leaving others [unclear: to] good sense of the parties." If, for examples it had been suggested that this [unclear: court] be so unreasonable as to make awards [unclear: ing] employers to give the preference of employment to unionists, and [unclear: make] legally enforceable, Mr Reeves, I [unclear: am] would have scouted the suggestion as an [unclear: insult] to a court presided over by a [unclear: Supreme] Court judge. Yet this is precisely what [unclear: the] court gradually came to do under [unclear: consist] pressure from the unions; yet even [unclear: then] unions were not satisfied, and [unclear: Parliament] to take from the court the power of saying whether its awards were to be legally [unclear: able] or not. In short, the history of [unclear: the] act is the history of coercion by [unclear: legislation] everywhere—one dose renders another [unclear: sary]; it is like drinking sea-water. [unclear: And] again, as though they were [unclear: determined] move all the leading features of Mr [unclear: Re] handiwork, the unions got their Parliament transform the Boards of Conciliation what they now are in reality—courts [unclear: of] instance; so that now, instead of Mr [unclear: Re] Boards of Conciliation settling 99 per [unclear: cent] of disputes by conciliatory methods, [unclear: with] Court of Arbitration "in the background we have two courts—a court of first [unclear: ins] and a Court of Appeal, to which there [unclear: is a] larger proportion of appeals than [unclear: to any] court in the world. And now, as [unclear: I] there is still another amending bill Parliament, entirely dictated by [unclear: the] page 13 [unclear: unions] or the Labour department, whose [unclear: function] it is to keep their demands [unclear: constantly] before Parliament. One of the proposed amendments consists of only five lines, and yet it will have the effect of placing in the hands of the unions the most effective weapon against employers which their devilish [unclear: ingenuity] has so far devised. The original [unclear: act], furtherance of its design of settling and [unclear: preventing] strikes and lock-outs, provided that whilst a dispute was before the board or the court an employer was not to lock out his [unclear: sig] and a union was not to strike; the proposed amendment is intended to deprive [unclear: employers] of the power of dismissing a [unclear: union] not merely when a dispute is in course of settlement, but when anything is pending "preliminary to the reference of the dispute and connected therewith."

Then follows a specimen of coercive [unclear: legislation] so perfect in its way as to be worth [unclear: quoting] in full:—"In case either of the parties shall interrupt the relationship of employer and employed by the dismissal of any of the employees, or by any of the employees [unclear: discontinuing] work, the onus of proving that each discontinuance of work or such [unclear: dismissal] was not done in contravention of section [unclear: 100] shall be on the employer if he dismisses [unclear: as] aforesaid, and shall be on the employee if [unclear: discontinues] work as aforesaid. And yet [unclear: Mr Reevse] fondly imagines he can trace the [unclear: features] of his beloved offspring in this [unclear: mon]. I sincerely hope he may not have to [unclear: admit] that he regrets having fathered it.