HC Deb 31 July 1934 vol 292 cc2481-91

11.25 a.m.


On the last day of our sitting before the Summer Recess, I should like to refer to the Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops. I regard the report as one of the most human documents ever enclosed in blue covers, and I congratulate the inspectorate of factories in the Home Office on the very admirable work they are doing in administering the Factory Acts. It is typical of the people of these islands that we have the habit of leaving the most important problems affecting our people until almost the last day. When Parliament is confronted with such Measures as the Incitement to Disaffection Bill, or the Betting and Lotteries Bill, the House of Commons can be roused to fury. When a foreign politician is assassinated, the whole nation to which we belong stands aghast and questions galore are asked as to how and why it happened. But the report of the Chief Inspector of Factories is regarded as a mundane document, and that in spite of the fact that it affects the health and welfare during their working lives of from 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 of our factory operatives.

My duty this morning is to try and place this problem in its proper perspective. I should regard it as nothing short of a tragedy if an important document of this kind were allowed to remain in the pigeon holes at the Home Office without any reference being made to it on the Floor of the House of Commons. The Factory Department of the Home Office is a very important one. It has just celebrated its first century of existence, and I think those who study the history of industrial progress in this country will congratulate the Home Office on the very excellent work which has already been done by the inspectorate. No matter what may be the colour of the Government in power the Department administers the Factory Acts irrespective of the political opinions of Ministers. I sincerely hope that at the beginning of the second century of the history of the Department its activities will grow, its vigour will be unabated and that it will pay as much attention to the negligent and delinquent employer and bring him to book under the law with as much effect as has been the case in the past.

Machinery is travelling faster than ever, rationalisation in factories and workshops has nearly reduced the operative to an automaton, and the demand for increased production for private profit is proceeding apace in an almost inhuman fashion. In this process the factory inspector must be more alert and more qualified than ever to do his task. He ought, therefore, to be equipped by the State with all the weapons to which he is entitled in order to carry on his very onerous duties. The report deals in the main with legislation affecting young persons and the conditions under which hundreds of thousands of young people are employed, although, of course, there are some factory laws affecting adult workers. There is no doubt, and here I speak with a little authority, that some unscrupulous employers in this country are taking undue advantage of the poverty and lack of trade union organisation of certain factory workers and exploiting them with a severity which has been almost unknown in this country for the last 50 years, as I shall endeavour to prove from the report itself.

A few cases of harsh treatment of young factory operatives which came to light during 1933 are just an indication of the ferocity of some employers. In fact, we have reached the stage in this country where a large number of young persons are working too hard and too long whilst hundreds of thousands of their fellows are standing idly by. It is one of the anomalies of the industrial situation in this country that those who are at work, work harder and longer and work more overtime than ever, whilst the number of persons unemployed is still increasing during some periods of the year. I am going to quote from the report, and I confess that, although the report is an excellent picture of factory and workshop life, I have been amazed at some of the disclosures in the chapter under the head of "Employment." If some of the cases which I shall quote, which have happened in England, had occurred in Japan or China, there would have been a howl from the Tory benches, and the Press of the country would have created such a noise that we should have required more tariffs and quotas against Japan and China in order to prevent goods coming into this country, because it would be said they are manufactured by exploited labour.

The instances which I shall quote from the Factory Inspector's report are happening day by day within our own shores, and they alarm me beyond measure. During the 13 years I have been in Parliament the cases I am about to quote are the worst that I have ever seen in any Factory Inspector's report. These cases are indicative of the manner in which we are slipping back not only to the conditions of 10 years ago but to a period of 50 years ago, when factory operatives had little or no legal protection. The Chief Inspector states: One of the worst cases of inhuman treatment"— he uses those words in an official document— was discovered in a dry cleaning works in the North, where a boy was employed for 156½ hours in 11 days, including spells of work of 24½ and 37½ hours. This case brings to light an amazing state of affairs that a boy should ever be called upon to work for one spell of 37½ hours. The object of this Debate, the object of calling attention to this report, is to make it clear to this sort employer that no Government and no Parliament, whatever its political complexion, will ever allow such inhuman treatment to be meted out to our boys and girls in factories and workshops without penalty. I am pleased to know that the inspectorate of the Department is pursuing this kind of case, but this sort of thing, I am sorry to say, seems to be growing amongst us from day to day. It might be worth while to plaster the name and address of every employer who exploits labour in this fashion on the hoardings of every town and city. That is a case from the North.

Let me take a case from the Eastern counties in which little girls of 14 and 15 years of age have been illegally employed in some cases from eight o'clock in the morning until 12.30 at night, and then from 6 p.m. one evening until 3 p.m. the following afternoon. They have been employed for 14 and 15 hours at a stretch, with only brief intervals for meals. That sort of thing should not be allowed to continue. Although I am a critic of our institutions and laws, I have always been proud to think that in the main our factory laws are the best in the world, and I am unwilling that any employer should try and prevent us from administering these laws for the benefit of young employés. Take another case. It was found that over a period of several weeks boys under 18 years of age have been employed from 7 o'clock in the morning to 8 o'clock in the evening, 13 hours a day, and this at a time when practically the whole industrial world has adopted a maximum 48 hour week.

It is a terrible thought that where trade union organisation is strong the workers, the adult workers, have a maximum 48 hour week, but that these young people under 18 years of age, who are not entitled to join a trade union until they are 17, are exploited in this manner. In Birkenhead a boy of 16 years of age employed in a bakehouse worked from 6.30 p.m. on Friday until 1.15 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, a period of nearly 19 hours. Women were also employed in this bakery from 6 o'clock in the morning until 10.30 at night. The owner of another small bakehouse employed young girls under 16 for 15, 16 and 17 hours without a proper interval for meals, and on one occasion they were employed for 36 hours at one stretch. I shall be pardoned, therefore, for speaking strongly on this matter.

Let me quote two other cases. In an aerated water factory in the North it was reported that during the busy summer months boys and girls had been employed on Sundays and statutory holidays for as many as 89¼ hours per week, exclusive of meals, and that in a cheese blending works women and young persons were employed for 78 hours in the week, including Sunday employment. I object most strongly when there are 2,000,000 persons in this country seeking work that employers are so unscrupulous as to exploit the labour of these young persons. They ought to employ more workpeople to cope with the work. In another small factory the boys were employed from 6.30 in the morning until 11.30 p.m. the same day, and up to 15 hours on Sundays during the months of July and August. I think that I have now proved the necessity for not allowing this extraordinary document to be left in the pigeon-holes of the Department without being debated in this House.

There is one pleasing feature about the report. For some years I have interested myself in the two-shift system in factories employing women and young persons, and in this report, for the first time, it is shown that the workers in factories where a two-shift system is proposed are stiffening their lips against it. I am glad they are doing so. I cannot see the sense of a two-shift system when there is so much unemployment in the country. I cannot see why a factory should be continuously at work and people employed for 70 and 80 hours per week. Work should be given to those who are unemployed. I hope the Committee which has been appointed by the Home Office to inquire into the two-shift system will read the paragraph relating to this matter in the report of the chief inspector. I hope also that the Under-Secretary will tell us when this committee is likely to report. I see that in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill the Government are including a provision to carry on the two-shift system for another year. I hope we shall abolish it. It was not necessary before the War, and I am sure that the conditions under which we are living to-day make it less necessary than ever for a two-shift system to be continued.

Now I come to a point of considerable interest to hors. Members on these benches. The first complaint I have to make against the Home Office is that while these bad conditions exist, and, unfortunately, in my view are accumulating, the factory inspectorate is not up to requirements. The authorised staff of the Department is 245, but five vacancies remain to be filled, and the post of senior engineering inspector has been in abeyance for some time past. Let me put the case in other words. We have vacancies on the inspectorate staff unfilled, probably for economic reasons, although we can spend millions of pounds on aircraft, £2,000,000 for feeding cattle, £3,000,000 for producing milk, and £5,000,000 for beet sugar subsidy. We cannot find the money necessary to fill these five vacancies on the Home Office inspectorate staff at a time when these terrible conditions prevail in some of our factories. I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to tell us something about these vacancies and whether they are going to be filled. The report, nevertheless, has the excellent feature that 166,185 factories and 86,851 workshops were in existence during 1933, an increase of 2,294 factories and a decrease of 4,008 workshops.

I have raised on more than one occasion a little problem which had bothered me for some time past. The Government ever since it came into power have been rejoicing that it has attracted foreign capitalists to this country to establish factories and thereby find employment for our own people. We are troubled as to the conditions of employment within these factories. I have already given one definite case to the Minister of Labour, showing that these foreign capitalists are degrading the standard of employment to which we are accustomed in this country. I gave a case the other day from Mossley, in Lancashire, where the operatives have been accustomed to what I call a decent British standard of life. A French firm of capitalists came to that town and the wages they are paying are really scandalous. One thing they do that is new in our industrial life: they employ their adult men for eight and a-quarter hours a day without a moment of time for meals. Surely that should not be allowed to continue. More than that, if the Factory Acts are not up to date, if there is not power in law to prevent that sort of thing spreading in this country, the Government ought to ask Parliament to give them the necessary legal power. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell his Chief that he should not allow this state of affairs to continue.

This is what happens: When a German or a French workman wants to come to this country to be employed by an English firm there are definite conditions laid down for that foreign workman, but when a foreign capitalist firm wants to come here to exploit British workpeople there are no conditions at all laid down. It is one of the anomalies of our industrial life which I fail completely to understand. We would like, therefore, to know whether the inspectorate has been given the hint to pay special attention to these foreign firms. We were told yesterday, in reply to a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), that there were about 100 foreign factories established in Lancashire. We all rejoice that our people are employed by anyone, because work is better than unemployment. But in the county of Lancashire there has been a standard of employment, of wages, hours and conditions, of a character that is far better than these foreign firms have brought here. I ask again that the inspectorate be told to pay specific attention to these foreign firms and their treatment of their workpeople.

There is another problem affecting Lancashire. The Under-Secretary has had little to do with the problem, but he has to deal with the effect of what has happened. There was an agitation amongst the employers, consequent upon Japanese competition, to increase the number of looms per weaver. I am assured by women weavers who are operating the new system, what is called the six-loom-per-weaver system—the increase was from four looms to six—that it is too much for them physically to carry on. I ask, therefore, has not the time arrived when the medical section of the factory department should conduct an inquiry as to the effect of this six-loom system on the health and physique of the operatives? I know that there have been excellent reports issued on fatigue, and that those reports cover several industries. I suggest that another inquiry be conducted in order to find out what is the effect upon the health of the operatives of the introduction of this speeding-up by what is called the more-looms-per-weaver system.

I was rather surprised to read in the report that there is a high incidence of chest and bronchial troubles amongst the workers in malt-houses, which I suppose are connected with breweries, though I do not know much about it. Whether they are or not, the malt-houses ought to be brought up to date so that these diseases do not affect the workpeople. I trust that something will be done to prevent the spread of these two diseases. There is something very menacing in this report, in spite of the excellent picture which it gives of the factory and workshop life of the country. We are informed that skin cancer is the most menacing of all our industrial diseases, and that the incidence is highest in mule spinning. A strange thing to note is that while nearly all the other diseases that afflict mankind, consumption, infectious and contagious diseases, are gradually coming under medical control, the same cannot be said of our industrial diseases. We have the anomaly that the scientist has made it possible for the capitalist to exploit certain raw materials and that, although the handling of these raw materials has brought about some new industrial diseases, medical science has not been able to catch up with the processes at the other end. I should be glad if the Under-Secretary will tell us what is the intention of his Department in relation to this skin cancer.

We all know that industries are travelling Southward. I think I am right in saying that one-fifth of the population of these islands lives in London and the surrounding districts. I am wondering whether it is a good thing in itself that the people should congregate in London and leave the industrial districts of the North, where there are plenty of empty factories, good machinery, skilled operatives, good waterways and good Members of Parliament too. I am wondering whether the Government has any policy on the problem, or whether we are to drift to the stage at which London and England will be synonymous and all the people of England or nearly all will live ultimately in London. I think it is a bad thing in itself. It would be well, therefore, to state why I think these gentlemen are coming down South. Trade unionism has always been strong in the North and they do not like trade unionism. I am sure that whatever opinions hon. Gentlemen may have of trade union organisation, the cases that I have brought to light of the exploitation of young persons would not have been possible if trade unionism had been encouraged as an organisation in this country. The lawyers are all organised, and so are the doctors, and they have their minimum wage at every turn.


Which they generally do not get.


That is their own fault. They get their payments regularly from the National Health Insurance Fund anyhow, and I would not deny them proper payment, for they do their work well. I wish however more of them paid attention to industrial diseases. I shall be told that it is not necessary to have so many factory inspectors because the unit of the factory has grown. One firm manufacturing motor cars employed 8,000 people in 1932, but 15,000 in 1933. Another firm which manufactures gramophones and radio sets has increased the number of its workmen from 5,000 to 10,000 in a year. That is all very well and I like to see figures showing that more persons are employed anywhere but I do not think that the picture is complete. The factory inspector in his report tells us of the increase in the number of factories and workshops in the South. I wish he would balance that statement and complete the picture by telling us of the areas in the North that are becoming derelict.

I turn to another subject which has interested me for some years. I find that reports were received by the Department last year on the conditions applying to the work of scaling ships' boilers and cleaning flues in oil-burning ships. I remember some years ago examining this problem and I was amazed to find that boys were employed for this purpose because they were small and thin. If I remember aright boys, in the performance of this work, had to crawl in some cases about 100 feet through pipes and for this reason boys of small physique were selected. I thought that regulations had already been issued to deal with that matter and I should be glad if the hon. and gallant Gentleman would tell us what is the situation at the moment in relation to this class of juvenile employment. Then I find that conferences are taking place between the Home Office and the film producers with special reference to precautions against fire and the employment of children in studios. I do not know much about the conditions of employment of children in the studios but I feel sure that unless the Home Office is alert these gentlemen who produce the films will have no compunction about exploiting boys and girls for their own gain. I would like to know what is going to be done in that connection. I am also very pleased to learn that some attention is being paid to the question of better lighting in factories. It is worth noticing that in one of the industrial towns of the north it was found that only 27 out of 475 factories possessed up-to-date lighting installations. We are told that the local authority there is coming to the aid of the Home Office in this connection which is a very good thing.

The saddest feature of this report on all occasions is the return of accidents, and it is a sadder feature on this occasion than it has been for some years past because the total number of accidents increased in 1933 as compared with 1932. The number in 1932 was 106,164 and the number in 1933 grew to 113,260, while the fatalities have increased from 602 to 688. The Chief Inspector expresses the view that more accidents have occurred because men have been brought into the factories who had been unemployed for long periods and who were consequently unable to adapt themselves to the conditions of employment. Although that may be true in part, I am inclined to the view that the speeding-up process in industry has been largely responsible for this increase. The greatest number of fatal accidents in any single industry was 91 in the metal industry—smelting, conversion, rolling and founding. I see the hon. Member for West Swansea (Mr. L. Jones) in his place. I think he has something to do with that industry and it would be interesting to know what the employers in the industry have to say to the fact that the metal industry—tinplate, iron and steel and so forth—stands out supreme as the industry with a greater number of fatal accidents than any other. The building industry comes next with 80 and the docks next to that with 69. I have never been able to understand how it is that regulations which apply to part of the building industry do not apply to the whole of the industry, with a view to the prevention of these accidents. I must refer to the fact that some employers nowadays are wise enough to employ full time safety officers in their factories. Not only will this reduce accidents but I imagine that, as a consequence, workmen's compensation premiums will be lowered.

I now come to a point which is a little nearer home. We find that about 10,000 retail butchers' shops were visited during 1933 and inspections made of the dangerous mincemeat machinery in those shops. Nowadays some butchers' shops are almost like factories, and I am glad that the Home Office is paying attention to that sort of thing. We are told that more than 7,000 of these 10,000—

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