HC Deb 09 March 1939 vol 344 cc2313-8
16. Mr. Kimball

asked the Minister of Labour whether he can now make a statement as to the results of his inquiries into the case of the men from Ashby-de-la-Zouch and district, who were recently engaged for work in the Orkneys through the Employment Exchanges?

Mr. E. Brown

I have made full inquiries into these cases and as the reply is long I will, with my hon. Friend's permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Following is the reply:

Work in connection with tunnelling at Lyness (Orkneys) was begun by the contractors early in September, 1938. For the preparatory work, which consisted largely of road work, the firm applied to the Kirkwall Local Office for a number of labourers, and from September to the end of 1938, 27 labourers from Lyness and surrounding districts were engaged. For this road work the wage rate was 1s. per hour to men living in the camp on the contract, and 11d. per hour to local men; a week of 46½ hours was guaranteed. Men living in the camp were required to pay 20s. per week in respect of board and lodging. On 29th November, 1938, the contractors advised the Kirkwall local office that as from that date men living in the camp could pay 3s. per week for accommodation and make their own feeding arrangements. Early in December, 1938, a firm of sub-contractors advertised as follows for skilled and unskilled men in three newspapers circulating in the English Midlands: Wanted for large tunnelling contract— North Scotland—the following classes of labour: Chargemen—to act as shift bosses. Only men experienced in rock work will be considered. References required. Drillers—used to compressed air drills. Muckers—with underground experience preferred. Air compressor attendants—with knowledge of Diesel engines. Also men experienced in reinforced concrete, to take charge of lining of tunnels. The duration of this contract is for a period of approximately three years. Standard rates of wages paid. Accommodation will be found for all men. On Saturday, 31st December, 1938, a letter was addressed by the sub-contractors to the Nuneaton, Atherstone, Bed-worth and Ashby-de-la-Zouch Employment Exchanges inquiring whether "muckers" (unskilled labourers) were available for work on road making and tunnelling at Lyness, the conditions of employment being: Wages—1s. 3d. per hour with progress bonus. Hours—48 hour week guaranteed. Overtime at extra rates is most likely. Period—The contract will last for three years. Accommodation—New wooden camp buildings have been erected, including sleeping quarters, refreshment rooms, recreation rooms, etc. Board and Lodging—inclusive charge—good beds and good food—22s. 6d. per week. Transport—All expenses including meals en route to the job will be paid by the company and deducted from wages. Refund in full after 12 months' service; half travelling time will be paid for.

On Monday, 2nd January, 1939, a representative of the sub-contractors called at the Nuneaton Exchange and explained that no applications had been received as a result of the advertisements from men who were willing to work as muckers and inquired as to the possibility of engaging men through the Exchange. He was asked why the firm wished to engage labour in the Nuneaton area for the work when suitable men might be obtainable nearer the job, and stated that attempts to obtain the labour from the Exchanges in the North of Scotland had been unsuccessful. This information was later confirmed in writing.

I have ascertained that although workmen of the type required were in fact not then available in the North of Scotland, the Kirkwall Local Office had not been informed of the firm's efforts to obtain men from the Midlands. Had notification of these vacancies been made to the Local Office an endeavour would have been made to meet the requirements from the coalfield areas in Fifeshire, the Lothians, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. Unfortunately, however, before any such action could be taken the men from the Midlands had already been engaged, and in the circumstances the action of the Kirkwall Local Office was necessarily limited to rendering any possible assistance to the men should they desire it.

The following men from the Midlands were engaged through the medium of the Employment Exchange service.

Nuneaton Employment Exchange (1 married) 13
Swadlincote Employment Exchange 6
Atherstone Employment Office 4
Bedworth Employment Office 3
Ashby-de-la-Zouch Branch Employment Office (6 married) 16
Total (7 married) 42

In addition, I understand, 16 men were engaged direct from the Midlands area by the employers. The men selected for interview at three of the local offices were interviewed collectively at the respective local offices by a representative of the firm who told each group that the work was arduous and in an isolated area. This representative emphasised that he wanted only volunteers to undertake the work and he urged any of the men who had any doubts at all about the job to drop out. Each man engaged through the Employment Exchange service was clearly told about, and indeed given written particulars of, the conditions applicable to the employment.

On 16th January, 1939, a total of 58 men had arrived from the Midlands. The men were put to work road-making oh 17th January and remained at work on that day and the following day. On the evening of 18th January 42 of the men intimated to the contractors that they did not intend to remain any longer on the job. These comprised the 16 men engaged direct by the employers and 26 of those engaged through the exchange service.

I think it is unfortunate that the firm did not leave the recruitment of labour entirely to the Employment Exchange service, since the information I have obtained suggests that the engagement of men independently was largely responsible for misunderstandings which led the men to give up their jobs.

The firm did in fact pay the men who remained at the agreed rate of 1s. 3d. per hour and the arrangements for board and accommodation were in accordance with the particulars furnished, and compared favourably with road-making schemes in other parts of Scotland.

The Unemployment Assistance Board granted immediate assistance to the men in response to their applications for meeting their needs, and later made arrangements for the men to travel home. The Board also took steps to obtain full details about the family circumstances of each of the men with a view to determining what additional allowances could be granted to married men with dependants.

My Department makes every effort in connection with demands for labour which are notified to the exchanges to obtain suitable labour from areas not too far distant from the place where the work is carried out. I am satisfied that they cannot fairly be blamed for the difficulties that have unfortunately arisen in the present case.

I may perhaps add that action has now been taken to ascertain the firm's total requirements with a view to securing the necessary labour if possible from the coal mining areas in Scotland. With regard to the men from the Ashby-de-la-Zouch area and district, who returned from the Orkneys, only a few are now registered for employment and every effort is being made to assist them to obtain suitable employment as early as possible.

17. Mr. Kimball

asked the Minister of Labour whether he is aware that a number of the men from Ashby-de-la-Zouch and district who were recently engaged for work in the Orkneys, were granted assistance by the Unemployment Assistance Board to cover the cost of their return journey home, and are now in debt to the Board; and whether they can be relieved of this charge?

Mr. Brown

There is no question of these men being in debt to the Board in respect of the cost of their return journey, but in accordance with the provisions of the Unemployment Insurance Act if and in so far as assistance has been granted to them by the Board or by a public assistance authority, during a period in respect of which they are ultimately found to be entitled to benefit, the appropriate proportion of that benefit may be paid over to those authorities.

28. Mr. Stephen

asked the Minister of Labour whether he has now received a report on the conditions under which men have been asked to work on the cable-track laying job at Ophir, Orkney; whether the accommodation provided was considered satisfactory by the local medical officer of health; why 22s. 6d. a week for the accommodation and the food provided for these men was considered a reasonable tariff; how many men have been sent to this work from outside Orkney; how many have refused to work under the conditions provided, and have returned home; how many have been refused benefit in consequence of leaving this work; and how many labourers are registered as unemployed in Orkney?

Mr. Brown

I am having inquiries made and will communicate with the hon. Member as soon as possible. I should point out that the works referred to in this question are, as I am informed, distinct from other works in the Orkneys, with regard to which questions have been put previously.

Mr. Stephen

Will the right hon. Gentleman, while making an inquiry, see that more men are not brought from Shetland to work in that district?

Mr. Brown

I have started inquiries, and I will bear that point in mind.

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