HC Deb 23 May 1958 vol 588 cc1731-42

2.53 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Thornton (Farnworth)

I would like the House to turn now from colonial questions in Africa to a Colonial Territory in Asia, namely, Hong Kong. I am sorry that the Colonial Secretary is not here this afternoon, but I understand it is impossible for him to attend and I appreciate that, because what I have to say may be somewhat critical. However, I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for being willing to listen to what I have to say.

I am speaking this afternoon about the hours of work in textile mills in Hong Kong. On several occasions in the last year or two the Colonial Secretary has announced in this House that we have special responsibilities towards Hong Kong, it being a Crown Colony. I agree that we have special responsibilities, but an examination of factory conditions in Hong Kong leads one to the belief that our special responsibilities towards it are confined to privileged sections of the community, namely, the industrialists and the commercial interests there.

Early this year I was privileged to undertake a special mission for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Federation of Textile Workers Associations to make a survey of the textile industries and the labour conditions of the textile industries of Asia, that report to be one of the items of business of the Asian Textile Workers Conference which will be held later this year.

Within a few days of my return, in March, I addressed to the Colonial Secretary a private report on the disturbing conditions I had found in the textile factories in Hong Kong. I intimated then that in the objective report which I would have to prepare, Hong Kong would inevitably be designated, as a result of my objective survey, as having the longest hours of work of any textile industry in Asia. That is a very disturbing situation. The facts I want to present to the House are based not only on visits to mills, but also on interviews with trade union leaders, on contact with the Department of the Commissioner of Labour and, most important of all, on the Annual Report of the Hong Kong Commissioner of Labour.

In Hong Kong today there are 19 new mills, of which nine operate on three shifts of eight hours each, which is quite satisfactory by any standards in that context. The other 10 mills operate on two shifts of 12 hours each. In addition, there are 149 small weaving mills, some of these relatively old, and nearly all operating on a two 12-hour shift system. These statements are corroborated by the Hong Kong Commissioner of Labour in his Annual Report for 1956–1957 in pages 97 to 104, from which I quote:

"Standard hours per day 8–11½.
Standard days per month 26–30".
I shall have something to say later about the standard days per month.

These 12-hour shifts are worked in a large number of the mills in Hong Kong. Worse than that, it is not 12 hours a day for six days per week but 12 hours per day for seven days per week. These mills operate all the year round, the only holidays most of the workers get being four days' holiday at Chinese New Year.

Theoretically, in the best mills the operatives are entitled to a day's rest, after working six days, on a rota system. In other mills they are entitled to a day's rest after working 14 days. In other mills there is no provision for a day's rest. As the Report of the Hong Kong Commissioner of Labour states, the standard number of working days per month for some of the mills is 30.

What happens? If the operatives who are entitled to a day off agree to work on that day, they are paid time and a half or double rate. Consequently, most of them sell their days off for double wages. In the first case that I quoted, they then received eight days' wages for seven days' work. But—this shows the viciousness of the system—if an operative has any other day off for any cause, he loses his bonus payment, and that means that he loses two days' wages. That is a very strong incentive not to have a day off and to work seven days per week.

I spent some time investigating conditions in India. Pakistan, Japan and South Korea as well as Hong Kong. Nowhere else in Asia, except South Korea, did I find women working 12-hour shifts. It should be remembered that, according to the Report of the Commissioner of Labour, more than 40 per cent. of the operatives employed in the Hong Kong textile industry are females. Nowhere else in Asia did I find mills working seven days a week. The statement that no mills elsewhere in Asia work a seven-day week is borne out by a statistical statement published by the International Federation of Cotton and Textile Industries about spindle hours in 48 countries which have textile industries.

From these figures, on the basis of a 50-hour week, it can be deduced that Hong Kong mills work 170 hours a week, which is two hours more than there actually are in a week. That reinforces the statement that I made earlier that the mills work not only 24 hours a day but seven days a week and more than 50 weeks per year. Next on this list is Syria, where the industry works 144 hours per week. This supports my statement that nowhere else in the world do textile mills operate regularly seven days per week. I should be obliged if the Colonial Secretary would give attention to this point.

I do not underestimate the problems in Hong Kong. It is one of the most populous places in the world. It probably has more pressing problems than almost any other place in the world because of the pressure of population. However, there are large numbers of unemployed there, and it seems fantastic that in those circumstances women should be permitted to work 12-hour shifts seven days per week when there surely is a need, as nowhere else, to pool the available jobs and thus find employment for more people.

Not only are the hours of work in Hong Kong textile mills excessive in comparison with those worked in the rest of Asia; the hours of work in the textile factories are excessive in comparison with those in other recognised industries in Hong Kong. The Report of the Commissioner of Labour gives particulars of the printing industry, which works 8–8½ hours per day and a 26-day month; the rubber boot and shoe manufacturing industry, which works 9–9½ hours per day and a 30-day month; the paint, lacquer and varnish manufacturing industry, which works 8–9 hours per day and 26–30 days per month.

In the public utilities such as the dockyards, the Hong Kong Tramways and the Hong Kong Telephone Company, and in the public service there is a recognised standard day of eight hours and a recognised standard month of 26 working days. That means a day's rest per week, which ought to be the right of everyone.

I may well be asked what is my especial interest in this matter. It would be foolish to deny that for many years I have been associated with the textile industry of Lancashire and to deny the difficulties to us which emanate from the Colony of Hong Kong. However, my chief purpose in calling the attention of the House to this matter springs from my personal experience. I started work in 1918 in a cotton weaving shed, working 10 hours a day, 55 hours a week. Even today, I well recall my nervous and physical fatigue at the end of a week after working 55 hours in the heat and incredible noise of a weaving shed. I shudder to think of what must be the physical and nervous condition of these women working 12 hours a day and seven days a week all the year round. Those are inhuman conditions to which the House should pay serious attention.

My mother started work as a weaver in 1888, working 10 hours a day, 58 hours a week, and my grandmother worked as a weaver more than a century ago, working 10 hours a day, 58 hours a week. The point I am making is that we have to go back to before 1847 to find factory conditions and the laws of this country permitting women to work in a textile factory for 12 hours a day. The House must gravely view the fact that under our administration and responsibility, when a century has elapsed since women were permitted to work for 12 hours a day in a textile factory in this country, women can do that work in a Crown Coloney for that length of time.

My estimate of the average hours worked in the textile factories in Hong Kong, taking into account all the variables of 8-hour shifts, 10-hour shifts, 12-hour shifts, six-day weeks, seven-day weeks, 14-day fortnights, and so on, tends to be an understatement at 65 hours a week. That is more than has been permitted in this country for over a hundred years.

The hours of work in Hong Kong are the worst in Asia and probably the worst in the world. I admit that I have reason to believe that in some of the small country mills in Japan a seven-thy week system is operated, but that is in breach of the labour laws of Japan. All the conditions which I have enumerated are within the laws of Hong Kong. The labour laws of Hong Kong permit women to work 13 hours a day and the Hong Kong Commissioner of Labour reported, on page 103 of his 1956–57 Report, that women frequently work the maximum legally permitted hours.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to take steps to reduce these scandalously long hours for women in the textile factories of Hong Kong and to see that the factories are stopped for one day a week, which is the only way in which there can be an effective guarantee that the operatives have a day's rest each week. Nothing I have said should be taken as being critical of the Commissioner of Labour in Hang Kong and his senior factory inspectors.

They are trying to do a good job in incredibly difficulty conditions, but unless there is legislation compelling the mills to close down for a day each week, it will be almost impossible for the factory inspectorate to keep an effective check to ensure that workpeople have one day's rest from factory toil each week.

I should like the hon. Gentleman to give serious consideration to establishing a minimum wage in textile factories in Hong Kong. I say quite frankly that the hourly wages paid in Hong Kong fit fairly well into the Asian scene. I should not like it to be thought that I am making these statements because I have suddenly become aware of the difference between Asian standards and European standards. This was my fifth visit to Asia in the post-war period. All these visits have been concerned with examining labour conditions, trade unions, and so forth.

I appreciate full well that there are differences in modes of living and standard of life between Asia and the United Kingdom and that it will be a long time before that gap can be closed. My appeal this afternoon is not based on a comparison between East and West, but on a comparison between East and East. Hong Kong stands condemned on conditions of labour relating hours of work even in Asia. That is something which this House should not tolerate.

3.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. John Profumo)

I have listened with the greatest sympathy to the most moving speech made by the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Thornton). It was all the more moving because we all know of his very long personal experience of the industry and——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary has already addressed the House on the Motion for the Adjournment. He should ask the leave of the House if he wishes to speak a second time.

Mr. Profumo

I am very sorry, Mr. Speaker. I thought I was addressing the House on a different Adjournment debate. I now ask your leave, and that of the House, to address the House again. I will not go over what I have already said, but the hon. Member can take it that I said it with great sincerity and conviction.

My right hon. Friend and I, as well as the Governor, always have very much in mind the need for improving conditions in Hong Kong industries, including textiles, as far as practicable.

However, the consideration of reform must always be done with careful regard to local circumstances. Among local circumstances to be borne in mind in this case is the fact that Hong Kong is very overcrowded. The hon. Member recognised this. Its population is 2¾ million, as compared with 600,000 at the end of 1945, and 700,000 people, more than a quarter of the whole populations, are refugees from China. Consequently, economic conditions are very difficult and, with so many mouths to feed in the territory, and with keen competition to be faced in both local and in export markets, it is far less easy to improve working conditions.

We must also remember that for nearly one-third of its population Hong Kong is "a refugee community" in which the over-riding consideration is that long hours and low wages are preferable to unemployment, and in which the avoidance of unemployment or underemployment is the chief aim of the workers. The difficulties of employment will be aggravated by the closing of the Royal Naval Dockyard, which was announced last November. This is due to be completed in November 1959 and it will throw 4,700 people out of work.

The great majority of those who have been discharged so far have been found new jobs, mostly in Government employment, but I can see no grounds for complacency about prospects of finding jobs for all the rest. Unemployment might well be caused, for example, if shorter hours were made compulsory in the textile industry, because shorter hours would probably mean higher costs and pricing products out of both export and domestic markets.

It would be very difficult to absorb people displaced in large numbers from the textile industry, which now employs a large proportion of the total industrial labour force. The closing of mills and factories would, therefore, have an immediate and very serious effect on the Colony's economy and the contentment of its people.

As to the actual working conditions, I think I should place on record certain facts and figures, which the hon. Gentleman himself knows just as well as any of us, though I hope he will not mind my doing so in order to put the matter in perspective. Conditions in the textile industry vary very considerably from one section to another, but they are good generally by Asian standards in the most modern spinning and weaving sections, which are those chiefly concerned with exports to the United Kingdom. Even if it were practicable to establish statutory minimum wages in the industry, it would almost certainly not affect to any extent wage rates in that section of the industry engaged in exports to the United Kingdom. Wages and conditions in the textile industry are also superior to those in other industries in Hong Kong. Most of the operatives are paid on piece rates, and women receive the same rates as men. Only very few juveniles are employed.

Average cash earnings in the cotton spinning and weaving mills are between £10 3s. and £15 8s. a month, these figures including the cash bonuses. In addition, the majority of workers are provided with free accommodation and subsidised meals. Free medical attention and welfare facilities are also common features. In some factories facilities are very good indeed, and include swimming pool, playing field, free tutorial classes, library and laundry. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman knows these things, but I think it is better that I should place them on record. There are also safety, health and welfare provisions which are regularly inspected by officials of the Labour Department.

Hours of work, usually on a shift system, vary between eight and 11½ hours a day for a 26 or 27-day month in most sections of the industry. With varying methods of rotation, it is difficult to arrive at an average figure of hours of work, but I do not deny that these are long by Western standards. Long hours of work are a traditional feature of Oriental life.

There is a statutory prohibition on the employment of women between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and, in addition, the Commissioner of Labour's written authority is required for their employment after 8 p.m. and before 7 a.m. There is no statutory provision for rest days and holidays. In practice, rest days in the spinning mills vary from one and a half to four days a month, and an average of six annual holidays is granted. Some undertakings work three shifts of eight hours each, employing women on the two-day shifts only. In each shift, there is a break of half-an-hour imposed by Statute. Other undertakings work two 12-hour shifts, employing women on the day shift only.

The normal practice among Cantonese employers is to have a one-hour break at midday and a half-hour break in the afternoon if the total hours exceed ten. The Shanghai Cotton Spinning Mills, which operate continuously on the two shift system only, have a half-hour meal break. Permission to employ women for an extra hour up to 9 p.m. is granted only on condition that meal breaks of one and three quarter hours are given. The maximum working hours allowed are thus 11¼ hours.

Arrangements for rest days vary from mill to mill according to the length of shift and the rotation system adapted. Six mills give four rest days a month, six mills give three, and the remainder two or one and a half. Rest days are given without pay, although some mills grant food allowance on such days. Casual leave without pay or food allowance is granted on request. All mills have a system of good attendance bonus, amounting in nine mills to four days' pay per month, in seven mills to three days' pay, and in one to two days' pay. This bonus is paid to workers who work, as the hon. Gentleman said, regularly from one rest day to the next. On the average, six annual holidays are granted, three days at the Chinese New Year being invariably with pay. Rest days are taken as rest days, and are only worked in very exceptional circumstances. A good attendance bonus is paid not to induce a worker to forfeit a rest day, but to encourage him not to absent himself for more than half a shift during working time between one rest day and the next.

I gave those figures to provide a background and before I finish I wish to come to the suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman. In spite of the difficulties of the general situation, the Hong Kong Government are far from being idle or complacent. At present, they are drafting an employment Bill to provide an opportunity to discover to what extent hours and conditions of work can be further controlled by legislation. This is, I think, the crux of what the hon. Gentleman was pleading for. The problems involved will be carefully studied to see whether some further legislation can be made which may later be followed by more stringent regulations, particularly in cases in which machinery is constantly operated.

I think that hon. Members will agree that this sort of legislation would have to be of general application and not directed at the textile industry alone. But I believe that the steps which it is intended shall be taken by the Hong Kong Government will go far towards fulfilling what the hon. Gentleman expressed to the House with such sincerity and emotion. I am pleased to be able at least to forecast what is going to happen in the none-too-distant future, and once again to thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.

3.21 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)

I had no intention of intervening in this debate, but as I look round the Chamber I see that by doing so I should not be preventing any other hon. Member from taking up any time allotted to him. I therefore wish to say how much I have been impressed by the great service rendered this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Thornton) in bringing these conditions to the notice of the House. I wish that it had been possible for my hon. Friend to do so on an occasion when more hon. Members were present, but I feel sure that the picture he painted will receive attention throughout the industrial world.

I hope that some newspapers will find space to report it. Certainly, the Lancashire newspapers can hardly fail to do so. I hope that in the rest of the country what he has said will receive attention and I am sure that in the trade union journals his words will be reported and read with great interest. My hon. Friend portrayed conditions which cannot be described as anything less than shocking. The discussion we have had this afternoon reminds one of the debates in the House more than a hundred years ago, when conditions were extremely bad. Then, it was always found possible to say that if they were remedied, if there was any legislative control over the freedom of employers to employ their work people as long as they liked, costs would rise and we should lose our ability to carry on our export trade.

Such arguments were used more than a hundred years ago, but, as time went on, they were proved to have no validity whatever. Parliament decided, in the end, to intervene and to legislate, and the legislative progress went on through the nineteenth century until our own times. Results have proved beyond doubt that excessive hours of work and bad conditions, so far from lowering production costs, raised them. All the legislation limiting the hours of work of children and women, and insisting on good factory conditions, and the imposition of minimum wages through the trade boards and wages councils, have shown that when conditions were remedied costs were not increased but were lowered.

I make no complaint about what the Under-Secretary of State said this afternoon. He welcomed what was said by my hon. Friend and spoke in a sympathetic manner. I am not complaining of what the hon. Gentleman has said, or the way in which he said it. I suggest very seriously that the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies and his right hon. Friend, in considering these matters of Hong Kong, should bear in mind the lessons of history in this country. The Under-Secretary admitted that the average working hours were—I think I am quoting him aright11½ hours a day for women workers, an excessive number.

Mr. Profumo

I believe I said that it was the maximum.

Mr. Marquand

That was the maximum which obtained in a good number of plants. The interesting fact, borne out by the information given previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth, is that these conditions vary. There are good mills in which conditions are reasonably tolerable and there are others in which they are bad. If the good, well-administered mills can exist, sell their goods and make a profit, I believe—and all British industrial history bears it out—that legislative interference to compel the worst mills to approach the standards of the best would in the end be beneficial to the economy of Hong Kong.

I believe that it would not damage the economy if some of the poorly managed mills in which people work excessively long hours and have little or no holidays and no rest days during the week, were forced by legislation to improve their conditions. Even if one or two, in consequence, went out of business, the people would be reabsorbed in the better mills, which would then have an opportunity of expansion. That is exactly what happened in the trade-board industries, after the Trade Boards Act, 1909. History proves it beyond doubt.

I hope that when this debate is read in Hong Kong, as I am sure it will be, a message can go from this House of Commons, scantily attended though it is. If the Chamber were full I do not believe that the message would be any different. It is a message to say that the House of Commons is seriously disturbed and worried to learn of these bad conditions and feels that they ought not to be tolerated. It recognises that progressive steps may have to be taken and that everything cannot be improved at once, but it feels that a very determined effort to follow the experience, already so satisfactory and happy in this country, of wages and hours legislation to eliminate the worst practices and gradually to step up conditions should be followed in Hong Kong and should be as successful there, and as little damaging to trade and industry of Hong Kong, as it has been in our own country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Three o'clock, till Tuesday, 10th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 21st May.