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The Position of Women in Unskilled Work

October 22, 1907 — Conference, National Union of Women Workers of Great Britain and Ireland, Midland Hall, Manchester, England


We must not forget when speaking of unskilled work that many persons called unskilled are doing work that none of us in this room could do if we were put to it. But the definition usually accepted is that the skilled worker is she who has to undergo some careful training before beginning to earn money. We must not fall into the error of thinking that when we speak of unsekilled and underpaid workers we are talking of those who really do not possess skill. Amongst unskilled workers are reckoned the makers, for instance, of elaborate card-board boxes, in making which only practice gives quickness; you and I could not make such boxes without spoiling them.

Now why are these unskilled workers, as they are called, so shamefully underpaid as they are. I am not going to waste time in giving instances of underpayment. Probably every one in this room knows that the average payment of women in unskilled trades is less than what women need to live upon healthily and wholesomely and in a civilised manner.

Wages are determined in a state of unrestricted competition — we are not living quite in such a state — but in a state of unrestricted competition wages are determined by the need of the employer to buy labour and the need of the worker to sell labour. Now of the unskilled there are a great many ready to sell their labour, and their need of selling it is a great deal keener than that of the employers to buy it. Therefore, labour in these unskilled branches has followed the invariable economic rule of being sold at barely above its cost of production. The cost of production of labour is the keeping alive of the worker; and the competition in unskilled labour has been so keen that labour has been brought down to a price below its cost of production; and as the workers continue to live — though they do not continue to live to nearly so great an age as people more properly supported — yet as the continue to live, it is perfectly certain that someone else, besides the employer, supports them.

Now women are in a worse case than men, at least they are worse paid than men, in almost all industries; and the reasons for that are two-fold. Apart from the reason of custom, which we know is so very great, women are worse paid than men because, partly because, some women are supported, but far more largely because women do not expect to remain the labour market; women expect to marry and to be supported; and for that reason they will often accept much lower wages than they would if they expected to go on working. I do not think that married women cut down wages. I have been very much struck with the fact that employers are beginning to prefer married women to work for them because they say married women know the value of money. They wan tot turn out as much as they can to get as much money as they can.

Unskilled women workers I would point out cannot organise. Labour organisation is only of value when you can control the supply of labour and when you can make up a sufficient fund to support the workers when they refuse to work for low pay. But unskilled women are in such numbers that it is impossible to control the whole supply of labour. It is useless for any group of women to resist the low wages of unskilled women, because employers can practically draw in as many workers as they want. Nor is it possible for workers so poor to accumulate the necessary funds to support those who stand out.

Therefore, in Trades Unionism, there is no hope for the most unskilled workers. Nor is there hope, except in rare cases, in individual employers. Most employers are individually unable to improve conditions much above the standard imposed  by their competitors. I need not labour that point; it must be obvious to anyone who thinks.

What remains? Are we to go on acquiescing in this state of things, and say — Thus it must be. There have been influences that have helped to better this state of things. The law has helped it. The law has limited the hours in most trades — not quite in all — and the result of that has been that women are better paid by the hour (and men too, of course), and they do not work so many hours.

Let me give you an instance that fell under our own notice. There were some girls working in a factory, who each received about 7/6 a week for piecework. They were making small articles of wearing apparel. It was found by the ladies carrying on a club amongst those girls that many of them took home work at night; they were practically compelled to do so, and they worked till two or three in the morning at home, but for all those hours’ work they only received 7/6. Well, the ladies of the Women’s Industrial Council, which I am representing here, communicated with the Factory Inspector. The Factory Inspector called, and told the employer that this taking home of work to do at night was illegal, and must be stopped. The employer called the girls before him, and made them sign a declaration, each of them, that the work was taken home for their relatives to do. The girls did not refuse to sign it; they did not dare to refuse, but they told their friends at the Girls’ Club. These again told the Industrial Council, and the Industrial Council told the Factory Inspector. The Factory Inspector called again, met the girls coming from work with their little parcels, told them to take those little parcels in again, and visited the employer. What she said to the employer we don’t know, but we do know that no more work was given out to be done at home. At the end of that week, the girls, having worked only the legal hours, had earned something less than 2/3, instead of their usual 7/6. They went to the employer and said: “We cannot live upon what we are earning now; it is impossible, and the Inspector won’t let us work at home at night. If you don’t raise our wages we cannot possibly go on.” If you don’t raise our wages we cannot possibly go on.” He raised the rate of pay something between 45 and 50 per cent.; he also, instead of employing seven girls, as he had done, opened a new room and employed six more girls.

That is what comes of interference with the liberty of the individual!

This was exactly the kind of case in which many ladies who are strongly of opinion that the interference of the law lowers the rate of women’s pay, would have said, — These girls working sixteen hours a day can only make 7/6. If you shorten their hours to ten a day they will be starved.

Many of us feel that the time is coming when the law should go further than interfering with hours and sanitation; that it shall say, as it does say in some English colonies, that it shall be illegal to give work to people and to pay them at a less rate than the one fixed by law. should go further than interfering with hours and sanitation; that it shall say, as it does say in some English colonies, that it shall be illegal to give work to people and to pay them at a less rate than the one fixed by law. The rate fixed by law should be, at first at any rate, the wage paid by the best employer in the trade; for in every trade we have examined, or very nearly every trade we have examined, there are great differences between the wages paid by various employers; and if Mr. Smith can manage to pay a girl 3/- while Mr. Jones pays I/6 only for the same work the law may very fairly insist that Mr. Jones shall come up to the level of Mr. Smith. We cannot suppose that if one employer can pay the better wage the other employer cannot also do it. It is a question of management; and if the employer who cannot manage his trade without under-cutting is driven out of the trade, then we may live in hope that some man who can manage better will come in his place to the general advantage. The law is economically justified in interfering because individual employers cannot do the work. The shortening of hours was never effectual until the law touched it. I do not say the law is not sometimes evaded; but the working hours have been visibly shortened. And so the wage might be clearly and certainly raised if the law undertook wages as well as hours. Morally the State is justified; economically the State is justified on yet another ground, It is justified because people who do not live by their own wages do live upon somebody else’s money; they live upon the money of the State: the burden of poverty, of dirt, and of disease is borne by the State, and the State should put it on the right shoulders. Morally we all bear the suffering of the poorest class in this country, we all of us share in their sufferings; and I wish that we shared them more. The law is the representation of the organised will of the people, and surely the time has come when this nation can declare that it is the organised will of Great Britain that British workers shall no longer work for less than a living wage.



Source: Women Workers: The Papers Read at the Conference Held in Manchester on October 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25, 1907 (London: P.S. & Son), 1907, pp. 17-20.