HC Deb 17 February 1944 vol 397 cc491-502

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Beechman.)

Mr. Sorensen (Leyton, West)

I am very sorry indeed to have to keep the House still longer. As a matter of fact, I am quite sorry for myself, because this is not the first time I have had to deal with matters at the fag end of a Session or a day. I am sorry, too, that a matter of such importance has to be brought forward right at the end of our proceedings, yet, as I had given notice to raise it, it is appropriate that we should go through with it now. During the war British workers have submitted to all kinds of restrictions, and they have done so because they recognise that it has been necessary for the prosecution of the war. I am equally certain that, had there been a suggestion that women should submit to the imposition or hardship and danger, such as that which is now being imposed upon certain Indian women, there would have been a very vigorous outcry against it. Yet, at the same time, we have to recognise that, if coal is required, whether here or in India, and if there is a shortage in production, measures have to be taken to meet that need.

In this country, owing to a shortage of production, the interesting innovation of a ballot has been established, and, as a result, numbers of young men have been selected in that chance fashion to work down the mines. In that connection, if there had been an indication that the same principles should be applied to their mothers or wives, I am quite certain it would have been viewed as an act of great retrogression, for there was a time when women in this country worked in the mines, but as we well know, that has long since gone by. A return to it even under the stress and duress of war, would for many of us be a price we would not sanction. In India, they are paying that price, and the Geneva Labour Convention dealing with the employment of women has been waived or suspended. I do not know exactly how many women are now being employed although I have seen it stated that there are 40,000 now employed in or on the mines of India. It is quite true that, only as recently as 1937, the principle of employing women in mines was abolished, and at that time, I believe, there were some 75,000 or 76,000 women so employed. That, I think, is a great reflection on us—that we did not abolish female labour in or on mines before.

It has to be proven whether this particular method of meeting the admitted deficiency is the right one to adopt. When I asked a Question on this matter I was told by the Secretary of State for India that owing to the serious shortage of coal production to meet the urgent needs of the war effort the Government of India have reluctantly, and as a purely temporary measure, suspended the prohibition, in force since 1937, of work by women in the coal mines of three provinces … He went on to say: The difficulty has been that the miners"— the male miners— tended to go away because in other employments their wives are allowed to accompany them and work with them. It is because wives have not been allowed to work in the coalmines that the miners themselves have drifted away."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th January, 1944; cols. 351 and 352, Vol. 396.] That apparently is the excuse put forward, but I do not think it is a valid reason at all to recruit women for the mines in India again. These women are not going back to the mines merely to give comfort and sustenance to their menfolk, but for pay. Perhaps that may suggest an alternative that might have been pursued with greater vigour than apparently has been the case. The payment of the male miners in India is certainly lamentably low. There has been a 50 per cent. increase, but it still remains lamentably low.

Before any women are recruited for the mines in India, everything should be done to see that the men who are working there are retained by making it worth their while. Out of a great reservoir of perhaps 210,000,000 or 212,000,000 males, many would work in the mines if it was made worth their while. When I asked a Question regarding the pay of miners I was informed that for a 10-hour shift the pay of male miners ranged in English equivalent from the highest, which was about 2s. 4d. per day, to the lowest, which was about 9½d. per day. I saw in the Press that the monthly average wages for a coal miner in India were round about 21s. per month. Whatever figures we take, they are terrible in their significance. Allowing for differences in standards of life and all other factors, it still remains that 9½d. per day, or 1d. an hour, as a reward for arduous labour is utterly and completely inadequate.

I therefore submit that until we had made wages substantially higher and had exhausted every means of applying better conditions and rewards for attracting men to the mines, or keeping existing miners there we ought not to have considered the reintroduction of female labour. It may be said that women may not work unless they choose and that they are not compelled to do so. But even if the women wanted to go to the mines it is likely they wanted to do so because in that way they could add a little more to their very poor income. When the men folk get only a penny an hour, or even 2d. or 3d. an hour, any possibility of their women folk earning a little more is a great inducement. I believe this to be a very retrograde step and I am not surprised that the Indian Trades Union Congress has condemned it in no uncertain terms. I am equally sorry that no consultation took place with the British Trades Union Congress, on the one hand, or with the Indian Trades Union Congress on the other. It does not say much for our assurance of the ultimate fulfilment of Indian aspirations and of our grant of self-government.

First of all, at the beginning of the war, there was no consultation regarding the war with prominent Indian personalities, and in a matter like this we have taken no action to consult the accredited industrial representatives of the Indian people. The All-India Trades Union Congress says: The step is a retrograde one in principle, uncalled for by the circumstances, not calculated even to achieve the object aimed at, and involving a breach of international agreement. I am not surprised that a lady, Mrs. Renuka Ray, in the Legislative Assembly, moved the Adjournment of the House as a protest against this step. True, her Motion was defeated by 41 to 23 votes, though I would like to know exactly what was the composition of the 41 who were in the majority. Time slips by too rapidly and I want, if possible, time for others to say a word, but may I add that I hope the Government of India and the British Government, in conjunction, will take steps to review this matter and to see that other steps are taken than those which have been taken, I am afraid rather too lightly and too superficially, to meet the possible need in India at the present time.

Looking up figures I find that at the present time there are some 357,600 male miners in India. That represents a very substantial increase on the number of male miners in the census of 1931, when the figure was 297,621, including those working in mica and salt mines as well as in coalmines. There has been an increase in that period, therefore, which means that men are prepared to work in the mines, and if it is true that better wages are being paid in certain industries and that men are attracted to those because of higher reward, then surely something can be done to counteract that influence by substantially increasing the wages of the miners themselves.

Meanwhile, I would like to know from the right hon. Gentleman who is going to reply—may I say in passing that I very much regret the cause of the absence of the Secretary of State for India and I trust he will speedily recover—that he will give some assurance that everything is being done to see these women get proper treatment. To me it is not enough to be told that they are getting the same wages as men—those are miserable enough in all conscience—but men and women are not the same, in spite of the ultra-feminism that may exist among some of my friends. No one would suggest, surely, that in physical respects, at least, men and women are the same. That being so I entirely endorse the decision of the Indian Trades Union Congress. Meanwhile, are the rather general assurances regarding the conditions of the women genuine? I am told that they are not to work in less than six-foot galleries. Is that certain? Is any inspection being carried out in that how many are working underground? I have asked whether children are taken into respect? I am told that many are working on the surface. That may be, but how many are working underground? I have asked whether children are taken into the mines, infants in arms, or others, but I have had no satisfactory reply. I would like to know what is being done with the children; are they being enticed to work in the mines as well? I want to know what hygienic precautions and facilities are being provided, and, above all, what compensation is likely to be paid to these women who may be injured in the mines.

These are some of the considerations which I bring to the attention of the House and I will conclude by saying that this matter, which may seem remote from our general deliberations, is concerned with men and women—women in particular—thousands of miles away. Nevertheless, they are our responsibility. One day, when India has her own complete self-government, it will be her responsibility whether she employs women in the mines of India or not. Meanwhile, it is our responsibility. There is more than a germ of justification in my plea that if we are not prepared for our own women to be taken into the mines, then we should consider the women of India on the same level and appreciate them from the same standpoint, and recognise that just as we are now glad that women are not employed in this arduous and dangerous task, so also, if it is not a scandal, it is certainly a shame that women are being employed in the mines of India at present. We shall never carry out a successful war in the East by relying upon the employment of 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 Indian women in the mines of India.

Flight-Lieutenant Raikes (Essex, South-Eastern)

I desire to intervene in this Debate only for a few minutes to say, first of all, that according to Western standards the idea of women working in the mines is extremely unattractive. But we have to face the fact that the view-point in the East is not, of necessity, quite the same as that in the West. I think the hon. Member who raised this Debate would be ill-advised to criticise overmuch what is purely a temporary war expedient when, at the moment he does it, he is criticising, by implication, our great Ally the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia.

Mr. Sorensen

I do not care.

Flight-Lieutenant Raikes

The hon. Member says he does not care, and I am sure he does not.

Mr. Sorensen

Russia is not sacrosanct.

Flight-Lieutenant Raikes

I am delighted to learn from those benches that Russia is not sacrosanct.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

But their compensation is much better.

Flight-Lieutenant Raikes

That is not quite the point. The main point which has been raised—and which is a perfectly proper one to raise—is that women are unfitted and unsuited to work in the mines.

Mr. Sloan (Ayrshire, South)

Does the hon. and gallant Member think they are?

Flight-Lieutenant Raikes

My own personal view, as a Westerner, is against it, but we do not wish, by overstressing this temporary war expedient, to give any feeling that our great Eastern Ally, who is far nearer to India than we are, should feel that possibly not every effort was being made to do as much as she is doing at this moment in the great struggle against the common enemy. The House will probably be aware of the rather curious fact that only last month the "Soviet War News Weekly" took the opportunity of not only referring to the fact that in Russian mines women were working as hewers but were glorying in that work. I bring that forward to show the rather different point of view of the East from the standards we have in the West. I would like to quote what that paper said on 11th January: Among recent arrivals at the Donbas mines are a number of girl hewers who are working at the coal face and who have reached high output levels. The best of them recently did six times her quota, while two other girls doubled or trebled their quotas. They have started Socialist emulation. It is interesting to know that at the moment these girls are not only able, but are apparently anxious, in time of danger to help their country in that form of work. I understand that in Indian mines women are not being used as hewers; they are being used only in the six foot galleries to do very much the same sort of work they would be doing if they were working on the surface. Although I hope what is being done at present will be a purely temporary war-time measure I think it is possible to make too much of a song and dance about it.

The President of the Board of Education (Mr. Butler)

I hope I may be able to leave a few moments so that hon. Members opposite may have a chance to speak but I think it is important that I should answer the points raised by the hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen). I am speaking in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India who, I am glad to say, is making very good progress and will, I hope, be with us again before very long. The hon. Member for West Leyton raised certain points with my right hon. Friend on 20th January with regard to this very important question and the first point I would make in reply is that it would, naturally, be the desire of all of us to see this practice discontinued if circumstances were normal. The whole development of policy in India has been towards the gradual elimination of the use of female labour underground and the India Mines Act of 1923 gave powers to achieve this.

In 1929 these powers were used to prohibit the employment of women underground in all mines except those in Bihar, Bengal and the Central Provinces. In these exempted mines at that time the process of elimination was destined to take a little longer, and it was hoped to dispense with the use of all women underground by 1939. When I was Under-Secretary for some five years at the India Office that process was actually speeded up, and it was possible to say that by 1937 the employment of women underground in the exempted mines, as well as other mines, was prohibited.

So that that was the definite policy, and it was carrying out nearly 100 years later than Lord Ashley's Act in England what we had hoped to achieve, namely, a most desirable reform, the elimination altogether of the use of women underground. Therefore it naturally was a source of regret to those engaged in administration, as well as to all who consider these matters, that circumstances in India, especially in the latter part of 1943, made it necessary for women to be employed again in certain tasks underground. There was a definite fall in production—in the latter part of 1943 it was particularly severe—and at the same time there were increasing demands for coal, exactly the same as in this country. This was due to a variety of causes. The men found it difficult to be in the mines at the time when they wanted to be beside their families when food was scarce. Conditions in India are totally different from what they are here. Many of the miners are agriculturists as well, and in some parts the employment is seasonal. There was a tendency for the men to go back to their villages at these difficult times and for there to be less labour available for the mines. There were outbreaks of malaria, which also took its toll of the labour supply. Men were tending to take on constructional work under the military authorities, which was well paid and was open to the attraction that husbands and wives could work together. This human reason is very important in India, particularly with those who work in the mines in the districts to which I have been referring.

Mr. Sorensen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are over 2,000,000 men in the Indian Army who certainly do not take their wives with them?

Mr. Butler

It so happens that those who come from the tribes who work in these mines are particularly anxious to take their wives with them. Though my whole argument does not rest on that, it has been mentioned by the Labour Member in India that husbands like to have their wives with them when they go underground. In order to face the serious danger of shortage of coal for factories, railways and other branches of the war effort, the Government of India had to take special measures. Those measures relate not only to getting more male labourers to go into the mines but they have also resulted in permission for wives to accompany their husbands. There is no element of compulsion, and it would be wrong for the impression to get abroad in the House that there is in this any element of compulsion, direction or regimentation. Conditions in that respect in India are as different from those here as are some of the conditions of those working in the mines.

Coming to the long-term policy, the Government of India have already announced that they are taking steps to recruit some 10,000 male labourers, particularly for the Bihar and Bengal coalfields. I am informed that 2,000 will shortly be at work. Wages have been increased to balance, as far as possible, the rival attractions of higher wages outside. They have been increased already by some 50 per cent. above pre-war rates.

The payment of attendance bonuses has also been resorted to, but besides this there are several other measures. Transport facilities are being improved between the villages and the mining areas in order that men may come in more easily after being engaged on part-time agriculture. Grain concessions have been made to mining districts, and welfare, educational and other facilities have been introduced to make the work more attractive. The result is that on the male side the Government of India are taking steps which have borne fruit and resulted in more men being at work. The other step the Government of India have been obliged to take is to permit women to go down the mines. If the House is doubtful about the effect of such a measure, I would point out that the result of the re-employment of women to a limited extent in Messrs. Tata's collieries has been an increase of production of 14 per cent. If we are critical of women being employed underground, we should give the Government of India the credit that it has had a definite effect in certain mines.

The House will be relieved to hear that this measure is a temporary one, and was so described in the public announcement. It is proposed to review the position in six months' time. There is no question of compulsion. The conditions in India are very different from those which we have in this country. The conditions of the employment of women are that they must be paid the same rates as men, that the galleries must be of suitable height, and that women should draw the same rations as men. As regards welfare arrangements, under the Mines Maternity Benefit Act, 1941, governing the employment of expectant mothers, the owners, during the absence of these women from mines, are obliged to pay them eight annas a day. The hon. Member referred to the employment of children. There is an absolute prohibition on children under 15 years of age being employed underground, and over that age up to 17 a certificate of fitness has to be produced. With regard to compensation, I have here the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923, which I have been examining, and if the hon. Member has any particular points to put to me I shall be glad to give him full particulars. The provisions of this Act on compensation should cover most of his anxieties.

The hon. Member raised one or two other points, but I think I have endeavoured in the short time at my disposal to give him answers to most of the anxieties he expressed. He will see that this is a situation different from what we have here. It is a situation which the Government of India are attempting to meet in a variety of ways, both by the provision of extra male labour, and by making the situation for the women as good as they can make it. I have shown that the women have done a service in what they have undertaken for the war effort in India, and I trust the House will agree that the Labour Member in India summed it up well when he said that the field of recruitment of labour for work in the mines was already rigorously limited, and that, in short, if you want to get the miners to work it is also necessary to provide work for their wives.

Mr. Sloan (Ayrshire, South)

It is a tragic circumstance that 100 years after we abolished women labour in the mines in this country we should have to discuss the employment of women in the mines of India. I am not at all impressed by the statement of my right hon. Friend because with 350,000 male miners, if they were usefully employed and had proper technicians and machinery, they could tremendously augment the coal supply in India. I understand that the coal output of India is less than 55,000,000 tons annually, and if that is so, there is something radically wrong with the management of the mines in India. Take the infant death rate in India. We had a report from Scotland the other day, which showed that it has, with one or two exceptions, the worst infant death rate in Europe, but the infant death rate of India is something horrible.

Dr. Morgan

It is 331 per thousand.

Mr. Sloan

I cannot understand how any improvement can be effected by the introduction of women into the mines, and the protections mentioned by my right hon. Friend are no protection at all. The women must work in a six-foot gallery—but they can still be employed on work that is not suitable for them. As a matter of fact, no work of any kind in the mine is suitable for any woman, despite what was said by the hon. and gallant Member opposite about our Soviet Allies. I am under the impression that he really wanted to make an anti-Soviet speech. Can we really reconcile ourselves to this unfortunate set of circumstances? If the Indian people had control of their country, I am sure that, with their long culture, the last thing that they would ever imagine would be to permit women to go to work in the pits. I think the thing is so utterly contemptible and horrible that the strongest possible protest should be made in this House.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 25th November.