HC Deb 18 March 1872 vol 210 cc214-22

(Mr. Winterbotham, Mr. Secretary Bruce.)


Order for Second Reading read.


Sir, I have to move the second reading of this Bill, and desire, at the outset, to remove the apprehensions of those hon. Members who appear to have misunderstood its extent. It is, in fact, a Bill to amend the Act of 1831, known as the Truck Act; but for convenience it repeals that Act, and re-enacts its provisions. Many clauses in this Bill which have excited observations are, therefore, not new, but are mere re-enactments of existing law. The Truck Act of 1831 itself repealed all preceding legislation on the subject—legislation extending through almost the whole history of free-wage earning labour in this country, from 1464, the date of the first statute on the subject. The object of this statute and of every subsequent one in the reign of Elizabeth and in every reign of the last century was the same—to compel the payment of wages in money instead of goods, and leave the workman free to dispose of those wages as he chose. It is not necessary for me to go into the history of this question. It may be admitted that in earlier times the habits of society rendered it much more difficult to make money the sole measure of the value of labour and the only medium of its reward. But whatever might have been said in less civilized times and countries in favour of other modes of payment, it is plain that such other modes have, in fact, at all times been found the ready means of oppression. The recital of the first Act shows the nature of the evil in its crudest form, a form, however, which the Report of the recent Commission shows is not unknown even at the present day— Whereas before this time in the occupation of cloth making, the labourers thereof have been driven to take a great part of their wages in pins, girdles, and other unprofitable wares, under such price that it did not extend to their lawful wages, and also have delivered to them wools to be wrought by very excessive weight, whereby both men and women have been discouraged of such labour. Therefore it is ordained that every man and woman being cloth workers from the feast of St. Peter shall pay to the carders, spinsters, and all such other labourers in any part of the said trade lawful money for all their lawful wages, and payment of the same, and also shall deliver wools to be wrought according to the faithful delivery and due weight thereof upon pain of for- feiture to the same labourer the treble of his said wages so not paid as often as the cloth maker doth refuse to pay the same in the said manner and form to any such labourer put by him to the occupation in any of the said parts of cloth making, and also to forfeit to the same labourer for every delivery of excessive and unlawful weight to him committed to be wrought, sixpence for every default. So the Royal Commissioners even now find workmen in South Wales paid not indeed in pins and girdles, but in packets of tobacco, which pass from hand to hand as the circulating medium. The most recent Act—that of 1831—provides—1. That wages shall be paid in money; 2. That no bargain shall be made by the employer with the workman as to how the wages shall be spent; 3. That the employer shall not deduct from the wages the price of goods sold by him to the workman; 4. That no action shall be brought by the employer against the workman for goods sold him. Sir, in proposing to amend this law, I am far from saying that all this legislation has been useless. On the contrary, it has worked powerfully in aid of and not against natural causes; and the evils at which it aimed, speaking generally, and as to a great portion—the independent portion—of the labouring class, have disappeared. Unfortunately, however, in some industries the truck system, and other evils closely allied with the truck system, not only still exist, but have grown and spread since 1831, the date of the last Act on the subject; and I am sure it only needs that the facts should without exaggeration be brought before the House to induce them to take the necessary further steps in the matter. Now, there are two kinds of truck existing in England and Scotland at the present day. The first is found in some of our largest and most flourishing industries in the coal and iron trade; not everywhere as necessary incidents to those industries, for in the North of England it seems to be almost unknown; but in the West of Scotland—in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire—and in South Wales, including Monmouth. The system is shortly this—The employer, whether an individual or a company, pays wages at long intervals. In Scotland they are generally paid either fortnightly or monthly. In South Wales the interval varies from one month to two. As the workmen cannot go so long without pay, advances are made to them in the meantime. In Wales, when the interval is longer, one such advance in the middle of the month is generally made unconditionally; but every other advance, and in Scotland every advance, is made on the condition—well understood and equally well enforced—that such advances shall be spent at the shop kept by the employer or his agent. Now, apart from experience, it might be thought that such a system would not necessarily be otherwise than beneficial to the workman. The master's skill and capital, his knowledge of the wants, habits, and credit of the men would enable him thus to supply them with what they want for themselves and their families on more advantageous terms than they could obtain them elsewhere. Indeed, it may be admitted that in its origin, this system was not without its advantages. When great works, such as the construction of canals and railways, or these coal and iron works, employing a large number of men, were carried on in parts of the country remote from towns and difficult of access, some official system of providing for the men and their families seemed needful. The working of this truck system—that is shop keeping by the employer, in the case of railway labourers, was, however, specially inquired into by a Committee of this House in 1846. Strong evidence against the practice was given by Sir Morton Peto and Sir William Jackson, both very extensive contractors and formerly Members of this House, and the terms in which the Committee sum up the character of the system is the best description I can give of it in the present day, and indicate its remedy. Speaking of the truck shops, the Committee say— This practice, directly and indirectly, appears to be most injurious to the men. The labourer is apt to be defrauded, and undoubtedly is frequently defrauded, in the quality and quantity of the goods thus forced upon him; he pays a high price, and gets a bad article. Even if they are not unfairly dealt with, the men suspect that they are overreached, and this engenders ill-will and distrust towards their employer. They have little or no means of checking the account of advances made to them, or of ascertaining whether the balance paid is really correct; and hence the monthly 'pay' seems frequently to be an occasion for dispute and riot and discontent. The contractor, being interested in the large expenditure of the men, has a strong motive to encourage their extravagance and wastefulness, and to induce them to anticipate their wages. In some instances the men cannot get employment unless they will deal at the master's shop. Those who live on credit are apt to be more profuse and improvident than those who pay their way; the less frequently the men are paid, the longer they must live on credit; and thus the employer is induced to pay his men at long intervals. It seems agreed by the witnesses that there is an intimate connection between this mode of provisioning the men and the infrequent payment of their wages; and that, if the former could be put a stop to, they must be paid oftener, or if they were paid frequently, the former practice would disappear. Of course, the House will understand that these payments are not made directly in shop goods; that would be directly in the teeth of the Truck Act. But the payments are made upon the distinct understanding that they are to be laid out at the shop. This is secured in many varied ways; sometimes by having the shop and the pay-office together, sometimes by the use of tickets or books, sometimes without anything but the well-understood condition that if the advance then made be not so spent no further advance will be obtainable. The secret of the whole transaction lies in the constant dependence of the men, the constant indebtedness on their part consequent upon the infrequent payment of the wages. The real character and effect of these shops is shown beyond argument by this one remarkable fact—in Wales, in the Midland Counties, in Scotland—wherever company's shops exist, the prosperous and provident workman, even when he has to deal on credit, goes to the private dealers and not the company's shops. If the wages were paid regularly and weekly these shops would not exist, and if the shops did not exist, the principal temptation to this miserable system of long payments would be taken away. But, Sir, this kind of truck—namely, that existing in large and flourishing industries like the coal and iron trade, although pernicious in the mode and for the reasons I have pointed out, is by no means the worst kind of truck. The growth of these industries, and the increasing independence of the men and improved feeling on the part of these large employers towards their workmen—all these things are gradually modifying and destroying truck in these trades. It is in smaller and more depressed trades that the real misery of the system is seen, and the more effective interference of the law is most imperatively needed. In the nail trade in Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Staffordshire, especially round Dud- ley, the system flourishes, and the condition of the nailmakers, as described by the Truck Commission, is truly deplorable. Two-thirds of these men are under the truck system. They are poor and dependent, and their poverty and dependence hands them over an easy prey to the pettifoggers, as they are called—the middlemen who carry on this truck system. And let the House notice this characteristic fact. The strikes which occur in this trade are strikes on account of wages by the better class of workmen, who get ready money wages. It is the poorer and more miserable class that suffers from the truck, and it is too poor and too miserable to strike against, or resist it. In the hosiery trade, too, in Leicester and Nottingham, a similar system of truck exists to a small extent, diminishing under the influence of the introduction of machinery, which puts down the middlemen. The abuse here, however, is not in truck shops controlling the expenditure of wages, but in deductions from the wages, especially in respect to frame rents. This grievance was considered by a Select Committee of this House in 1855, and seems to me, I confess, more difficult to deal with than the simple form of truck. The knitters, who receive their work from the middlemen, rent from them the frames at a price often fictitious, out of all proportion to the work done, and this rent is deducted from the agreed wages on payment. When work is slack, and all the frames are not wanted, the work is spread over them, each workman and his frame being only partially employed, but the full rent being exacted. Now, if this hiring of the frame were a contract independent of and collateral to the contract for wages, I do not think the law could in any way interfere in the matter. But it is the opinion of those practically acquainted with the subject, that if the two agreements were distinct the rate of wages fixed by custom, and of general application, would not in fact be diminished, and these unconscionable bargains as to frames would not be entered into. Accordingly, the Select Committee recommend that this deduction be prohibited. I will not weary the House by going in detail into the similar abuses existing in other trades. They are stated in the Report of the Commissioners. The lead mines on the borders of Lanarkshire and Dumfries, chair-making, lace-making, boot-binding, glove-making, and other trades, are dwelt on there. I will mention only one instance, that of watch-making, at Prescot, near Liverpool. The truck in provisions is of the same character as the other trades I have referred to, due to the same causes, and produces the same results. There is, however, here a special kind of truck, the workmen being compelled to take watches and other articles in lieu of wages, and re-sell them at a ruinous loss. With the evils, then, thus described, I propose to deal by the present Bill. The root of the matter is the dependence of the workman, and it is to the influence of natural causes, to the growing intelligence, prosperity, and independence of the workman, that the best and most permanent remedy is to be found. I confess I regard with jealousy any attempt to restrict by law the most perfect freedom of contract between those who are free and able to protect themselves. But where the workmen are not thus able to protect themselves, the law has interfered, and, I believe, can still beneficially interfere, not to thwart the natural influence of economic laws nor to sustain artificially decaying industries or attempt to determine wages, but to protect from real and gratuitous oppression. Thus, in the first class of cases I have referred to—the large iron and coal industries—the dependence of the men is purely arbitrary, produced by the system of long pays. We have the clearest testimony—we have the experience of those in the same trade—that this system is in no way necessary to the trade, and that there is no real difficulty in weekly pays. I could not take a more difficult test than that of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, and this is what the cashier says— I am cashier at the Royal Laboratory, at Woolwich Arsenal. There are 7,484 men, women, boys, and girls. Some of the work is very complicated, but there are all kinds. The work is more complicated, and done to much greater nicety, as a rule, than in private workshops. Some of the work is by piece, some by time. All the pays are weekly in cash, with six lie days. There are only three lie days in the Control Department, because there is no piecework there. Piecework necessitates more lie days. The lie week was introduced in 1857, when piecework was introduced. No draws were given. There is no difficulty whatever in paying weekly in any case. A lie week is absolutely necessary with regard to the piecework, because it is only divided on Saturdays, and it has then to be inspected, because no work except good work is paid for. There would be a little saving, but a very trifling one, in having longer pays. Our men do not absent themselves on Monday more than any other day. We do not find that paying them on the Saturday leads to more drinking on Monday or Sunday. We propose, therefore, that in all the trades comprised in the Act, that is, in all trades under the Factory and Workshops Acts and in mines, wages shall be payable at intervals of not not more than a week. At the same time admitting, as I do, that in very considerable industries, such as the coal mines in the North of England, where fortnightly pays prevail, truck and the evils we want to strike at are unknown, I am prepared to consider candidly in the Select Committee to which I shall propose to refer this Bill whether a week is the fittest time to fix. It is not the question between a week and ten days, or even between a week and a fortnight—it is between long pays and short pays; and we must be careful, while attempting to remedy this admitted evil, not to interfere unnecessarily with legitimate customs or with freedom of contract where the evil does not exist. We further provide that the wages thus payable shall be paid in money without any deduction, except for school fees, fines, and in the case of a workman living in his master's house—board and lodging—that is, we abolish the deductions permitted by the Act of 1831 as to tools, and material deductions which have been abused as I have shown in the case of the stocking weavers. This question of deductions must, however, be carefully considered by the Select Committee. Lastly, since one great cause of the failure of the existing Act has been that the workmen who most needed its protection are often too weak to enforce it, the enforcement of the law will be committed to the charge of the Factory Inspectors and Mining Inspectors, men whose knowledge and experience and independence will render their powers efficient, while their official position will be a guarantee against their abuse. The Bill, then, contains substantially three new provisions—It enacts that wages shall be paid weekly, without deductions, and it puts the enforcement of the law in the hands of Inspectors of Mines and Factories and Workshops. The Bill is limited, as I have said, to the trades comprised under those words mines, factories, and workshops. It is capable, indeed, of wider application. I cannot help expressing my own regret that we have been unable to apply its provisions to agricultural employment. In some parts of the country truck exists among the agricultural population in a most degrading form. I allude especially to the detestable practice of paying wages in cider and beer. The fact is, agriculture has always been excepted from the operation of these Acts, perhaps, because the Members of Parliament in old days were more ready to put down abuses among the trading population than among their own tenants. A better spirit prevails now, and if any Member more closely connected with the agricultural interest than I am, likes to propose to extend the Bill in any measure to agriculture, I shall not resist, but welcome the attempt. I have, however, enough on my hands to pass this Bill, and unwilling to excite unnecessary opposition, I confess I shrink from touching with unhallowed hand the crumbling fabric of feudalism, of which these barbarous customs among the labouring classes in agriculture seem to form a part. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.


thanked the Government for introducing this Bill, and supported its principle, but doubted whether the pecuniary penalties attached to the violation of the law were adequate to their purpose.


expressed his approval of the Bill as a whole, but coincided with the last speaker, in thinking the penalties which it would impose insufficient.


objected to the Bill that it would be impossible under its provisions, for a working man to know what wages he was to receive unless he were to keep accounts. He trusted that in Committee this objection would be removed.


, in reply, briefly observed that the penalties might be considered in Committee, and that he thought the case of agricultural labourers should be dealt with in a separate measure.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.

  1. WAYS AND MEANS. 114 words
  2. c222