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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

XV — Sweating and a Minimum Wage

page 81


Sweating and a Minimum Wage

Dear Mr.——,—No one can feel more strongly than I do the sense of pity and regret that men and women should often labour so hard and under such miserable conditions for so wretched a wage. If we could really put an end to the evils of sweating and free the tired sempstress from her unrequited toil by an Act of Parliament, I should deem no sacrifice too great,—except the fool's sacrifice under which one evil is abolished by calling a greater evil into existence, or no remedy at all is found, but only the name of the evil is changed. Unfortunately it is such means that the House of Commons lately declared its willingness to adopt in a fit of futile sentimentality. Members vied with each other in their eagerness to prescribe quack remedies for the evil—remedies which would either do no good or render the disease worse than ever—and refused to face the consequences of their action. We all know the mood of the coachman who, when he has lost page 82 his way, whips up his horses and drives on, anyhow and anywhere, in a panic, feeling that if he only goes somewhere fast enough he will get out of his troubles. He forgets that as likely as not he is only getting farther and farther away from his true goal.

Let me give you an example of the unwillingness of the Commons to look the facts in the face or to realise the consequences of their proposal. Practically all the speakers in the debate admitted that the question of sweating was really part of the question of unemployment. Yet they deliberately sanctioned a measure the effect of which must be to increase unemployment. If a minimum wage is fixed, it is certain that a great many people now employed at less than that wage will be thrown out of employment, and thus we shall add to the unemployed, many of whom notoriously are unwilling to work, a body of men and women who at any rate are willing to work, but whom the State will not allow to work at the wages at which work can be obtained by them. This result of fixing a minimum wage was well brought out by Judge Backhouse, a judge appointed by the New South Wales Government to inquire into the working of the minimum-wage law in Victoria. The Judge pointed out how the result had been to drive out of employment many of those who were previously at work, or else to cause evasions of page 83 the law. "To the man who is merely slow the law shows no mercy. If he cannot earn the minimum wage, he must not work at all."

It will no doubt be urged against the view I am taking that I have nothing practical to propose to meet the evils of sweating, and I shall be asked with rhetorical emphasis whether I am really content that "The Song of the Shirt" shall be sung in thousands of miserable homes or sweaters' dens in order that the sacred principles of political economy shall not be infringed. My answer is that though I have no ready-made remedy for sweating, I am not willing to pretend that I have a remedy when I have not, or to support a measure which I know will increase the evils complained of merely on the ground that I am doing something to ease the national conscience. If the "national conscience" demands an active poison rather than endurance of suffering, however poignant, then the "national conscience" is a false guide. But though I have no immediate remedy to propose, I am by no means unable to indicate some of the causes that have brought about the evils of sweating. These are the causes that produce unemployment and pauperism in their various forms.

To put the matter shortly, we must endeavour to stop sweating by stopping the manufacture of the unemployed and of pauperised persons. One of the chief engines of this manufacture is the page 84 maladministration of the Poor Law. The next is the special provision which of late years we have made for the unemployed. By recent legislation we have rendered it easy to be unemployed. In a word, the State is discovering that it can have just as many unemployed as it likes to pay for. It learnt this fact once before—in the years between 1790 and 1830—and in 1834 it realised that it must stop the manufacture of unemployed or be ruined. Now, apparently, it has forgotten, and will have to learn its lesson again.

Another source of unemployment is to be found in those Trade-Union regulations under which the natural grading of the pay of labour according to its efficiency is not permitted. Of this cause we have no right to complain, for the action of the Trade-Unions is voluntary, and the State cannot and ought not to interfere. It ought not, however, to make the anti-grading policy of the Trade-Unions easier by, in effect, declaring that it will provide subsistence under the name of unemployed allowances for the men who are thrown out of employment by TradeUnion action.

A last and final source of unemployment, and therefore of sweating, is, I believe, to be found in the tremendous pressure of our taxes and our rates on the poor. It is popular just now to regard high rates and high taxes as things almost page 85 beneficial, but in reality they are bound to bring with them very great evils. While we have been taxing and rating people nominally in the interests of the working class and in order to carry out so-called social reforms, we have really been depressing the condition of the poorest part of the nation. Remember it is on the man who has his back to the brick wall of absolute poverty, and who has no elbow-room in which to adjust his economic conditions, that the ultimate pressure of our public burdens falls. That it falls indirectly does not make the pressure less onerous.

In these days he who suggests freedom as a remedy for a social evil must expect to be treated with hatred, ridicule, and contempt, and held up as one who by his nature is half idiot and half tyrant. Nevertheless, I venture to say that by an application of the principles of free contract, and by such application alone, will a radical remedy be found for the evils of sweating. Restriction can do no permanent good, partly because it is bound to limit production—and increased production is the only means by which higher wages can be obtained—and partly because it is bound to carry with it that State aid which throws more burdens upon the people, and brings more and more of the industrious poor across the line which separates them from the pauper class. If the State forbids a man to take less than a certain wage, and he cannot get that wage, page 86 the State has to support him. But the State is, after all, only the working men with an ornamental fringe of capitalists at the top. Therefore what the State is really doing is decreasing the production of the things men desire, with the hope that thereby it will be able to give them more of those things!

One word more before I leave the subject. Though I hold that in freedom will be found the economic remedy, I by no means shut out the moral remedy. On the contrary, I believe that the moral remedy is all-important, and that those noble souls who are helping the poor to help themselves are doing infinitely better and kindlier work than those who vote for quack medicines. Again, I by no means desire to rule out the attack on sweating from the sanitary side. If, and when, the conditions under which men and women are working are found to be insanitary and likely to lead to disease, then let the law interfere and refuse to allow those insanitary conditions to prevail. Work under insanitary conditions is waste of the human and of the material product in the highest degree, and the State is well advised to prevent such waste.—Yours very sincerely,

J. St. L. S.