HC Deb 27 May 1913 vol 53 cc39-44

I beg to move, That leave be given to introduce a Bill to provide for the establishment of a minimum wage and the regularisation of the hours of labour of agricultural labourers. Some hon. Members may disapprove of the Bill which I now ask leave to introduce, but no one, I think, will question the great importance of the subject proposed to be dealt with therein. To all quarters it seems evident that the pathetic figure of the agricultural labourer is destined in the near future to occupy a considerable amount of attention of our statesmen and politicians. There is a number of us who feel that the problem we are attempting to deal with in this Bill are amongst the most urgent that can command the attention of the House. The latest available Board of Trade Returns show the average weekly wages, including every sort of additional payment and allowance to the agricultural labourer, to have been 17s. 6d. per week for the year 1907, but, as I have previously remarked here, in my opinion those figures are extremely delusive. It has to be borne in mind that the facts dealt with by the Board of Trade are exclusively supplied by employers, and, whilst not intending to charge them with intentional exaggeration, yet I respectfully submit that when you have figures furnished by one party alone, they, at any rate, need some consideration before receiving unqualified acceptance. This comparatively high figure of 17s. 6d. requires a little further analysis. We find that it ranges from about 14s. in some parts to 23s. in others. In those parts of the country where labour is in further demand, where mining operations and other industries prevail, the agricultural rates are considerably higher than in other parts of the land. I believe it is a remarkable fact that the agricultural wage is lowest in the most fertile tracts of the country. In the part of the land whence I hail we are able to boast of the most fertile soil of the country, and yet the rates of wages are of the lowest in the land. Then, again, it is a very common practice for deductions to be made from wages in respect of time lost through inclement weather and other considerations. Therefore I feel that some of the figures I have produced to the House have not been so far out as some have ventured to contemplate. I am aware of the fact that there are many employers in the agricultural industry who acknowledge as frankly as we do that a very strong case exists for improvement amongst this class of labourers, and many of those employers would be very glad of the assistance rendered in the fashion that I propose in this Bill. Everybody is aware of the fact that employers are subjected to competitive conditions, and if any group of employers care to avail themselves of the very low wages and depressed conditions in the competitive field, they are able to unfairly handicap others in the industry. I may very well sum up the provisions of this Bill to be that we would aid the fair employer to continue to act fairly towards those he employs. Tins Bill contemplates not only the fixing of minimum wages, but also the regularisation of the hours of labourers in agricultural affairs. It is common knowledge that the hours worked in rural districts are inordinately long. Not only is that unfair to the individual, making for great fatigue and weariness, but it also prevents the rural worker developing his educational, recreative and civic qualities. I believe a very strong demand exists throughout the whole of our rural communities for the hours of labour to be regulated, and for a weekly half-holiday to be provided also. We propose to proceed in this Bill by following the precedent of the Trade Boards Act. County boards will be set up with power for counties to co-operate—that is to say, we allow a certain amount of elasticity. I believe that the county unit is the most natural one, and there may be circumstances probably to render it desirable for counties to unite for this purpose. It is too late in the day to claim that Parliament should not intervene in this matter.

Quite frankly, I would prefer that every class of labour should be able to secure reasonable living conditions by associated endeavour through trade union organisations. But, on the other hand, I feel that Parliament is doing the right thing, when it finds depressed groups of workers, in enabling them, by fixing minimum conditions, ultimately to help themselves to a higher standard of existence. That is the justification prompting us to put forward this Bill. We do not suggest that a flat rate should be applied to the whole of the country. Conditions are varied throughout the land, and the constituent elements that go to make up the reward of labour display such wide variability that I regard it as quite impracticable to fix a flat rate for the whole of the country. Hence we leave it to the boards, whether representing county or district areas, to take into consideration all those elements that enter into the reward of the agricultural labourer, simply laying down the principle that those elements, coupled with the cash wage itself, shall be of such a standard as to ensure to the agricultural labourer the possibility of maintaining himself and his family in a state of decency and comfort. In fact, the Bill proceeds on the assumption that it is possible to determine a national minimum of real wages—that is to say, such a wage as, worked out in its cash equivalent, will equalise local variations in the cost of living. I must confess that I experience considerable difficulty in ascertaining the causes of the wide disparity that obtains in agricultural districts. The prices of agricultural produce reveal no such disparity, and if the prices realised should have any relation whatever to the wages I feel that no justifiable case can be advanced for the maintenance of the wide disparities that exist. If this Bill is privileged to receive a Second Reading it will become necessary and desirable that we should justify our case at greater length, but having regard to the urgency of the problem and the sympathy which is being widely expressed towards the rural workers, irrespective of political parties, I think I may with considerable confidence ask leave to introduce this Bill.


The hon. Gentleman asks leave to bring in a Bill with two objects—to fix a minimum wage for agricultural labourers and to regularise the hours of their labour. I think that both those objects are bad. Ever since I have been in this House I have always opposed interference by Parliament with the wages of adult male labour, and I could not allow the present occasion to go by without repeating my protest. We have seen something of the sort in the coal-mining industry, and from the reports which have reached me the attempt of the Legislature to interfere in that industry has by no means proved successful. If the amount of wages paid to the agricultural labourer is to be fixed by the State it follows that the amount of wages in every industry in the country must be so fixed. I believe that that would be a fatal policy. The hon. Gentleman himself had some glimmering that his proposal was bad, because he said that he would have preferred that the amount of wages should be settled by trade unions or other kindred associations. I prefer that, the amount of wages should be settled by the natural law of supply and demand. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh, no!"] I say, "Oh, yes!" The laws of nature cannot be overridden or turned aside by any Act of Parliament, and the bringing in of Parliament to settle what rates of wages shall be paid will only recoil upon the people who are supposed to benefit.

In many cases the farmer employs a certain number of old men. It is to be supposed that he will continue to employ them when Parliament has fixed the amount of wage that he shall pay? Naturally he will require the maximum amount of labour as he has to pay a minimum amount of wage, and that will work very hardly upon the older men. The farmer will take advantage of this measure, and when the weather is bad, and the men cannot work in the fields, instead of giving them odd jobs, as is done now, he will not employ them at all. Consequently they will not receive their wages, and they will suffer in that degree. Another point not to be left out of consideration is the power put into the hands of an unscrupulous candidate in an election to come forward and say, "Vote for me, and I will bring in a Bill to raise your wages to £1 a week." A more unblushing act of bribery could not be contemplated, but it is sure to happen if Bills of this sort are passed. As to regularising the hours of labour, can the hon. Gentleman regularise the weather? If not, what is the use of attempting to regularise the hours of farm labour? When you get a fine day in the haymaking season all hands, including the farmer himself, work as long as they possibly can. But the hon. Gentleman says to the men at five o'clock on an ordinary day or at two or three o'clock on Saturday, "Never mind whether the weather is fine or not; leave everything in the field and take your holiday." The following day it may be pouring; you may have wet weather for a week, and the crops that might have been saved if the men had worked on the fine day rot in the fields. If there is an industry to which this sort of Bill could not apply with any advantage it is the agricultural industry. Are cows not to be milked on the half-holiday? The proposals of the Bill only need to be mentioned to show their absurdity. It is all very well for men from the towns, who know nothing about rural life, to bring forward Bills of this sort. They are only put forward in the hope of influencing votes. The Bill is bad in both its objects, and I shall have great pleasure in opposing it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. George Roberts, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, Mr. Arthur Henderson, Mr. Barnes, Mr. Parker, Mr. William Edwin Harvey, Mr. Pointer, Mr. Goldstone, Mr. Charles Duncan, Mr. Brace, Mr. John Taylor, and Mr. Thomas Richardson. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time upon Monday, 23rd June, and to be printed. [Bill 182.]