HL Deb 25 July 1890 vol 347 cc842-7

in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government whether their attention has been called to the following remarks made by Admiral His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, at the annual meeting of "Missions to Seamen" Society, held at the Mansion House, on 28th April:— The Report also complains that in some ports abroad, and in Crown Colonies, especially Hong Kong and Singapore, the crews are compelled to do unnecessary work in transhipping cargoes on Sundays, which causes much discontent and discomfort to the men, and puts a stop to all religious observances, whereas in the Australian and self-governing Colonies such unnecessary working of cargoes is rigidly forbidden. I understand that the Secretary of State for the Colonies has called the attention of some Colonial Governors to this grievance of seamen. And whether the practice complained of has been prohibited, so that seamen may enjoy their Sunday rest in port in common with other of Her Majesty's subjects, Slid: My Lords, I hold in my hand a paper which contains the names of certain steamers, together with the names of the owners, which were wharfed at a single wharf at Hong Kong on the Sundays between March the 17th, 1889, and March the 25th, 1890, and all those steamers, I am informed, worked cargo without exception on those Sundays. The firms to which the vessels belonged were Macgregor, Gaw, and Co., of the Glen Line, who worked 13 ships on 13 Sundays; D. Jenkins and Co., eight ships on eight Sundays; The Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company, 13 ships on 13 Sundays; The China Mutual Shippers' Steam Navigation Company, five ships on five Sundays; The Union Line, Sandi-lands, four ships on four Sundays; Gellatley, Sewell, and Co., four ships on four Sundays; the British India Steam Navigation Company, six ships on six Sundays: the Ben Line, four ships on four Sundays; miscellaneous, five ships on five Sundays; making a total altogether of 62 ships on which cargo was worked at one wharf in the Crown colony of Hong Kong during that period. Of course, there were other wharves occupied, and, no doubt, a similar number of vessels were engaged there in transhipping to those which I have mentioned as being employed at this particular wharf. I understand that the same thing is going on in other Crown colonies. I am informed that there are 120,000 seamen in the year who pass through the port of Hong Kong; consequently, it would appear as if a large proportion of those 120,000 seamen were not permitted to have the Sunday's rest which most working men in this country claim a right to. Now, I am not going to argue this question upon moral and religious grounds, although a great deal might be said upon those grounds, but I am going to argue this question upon the right of every working man to have one day in seven of rest, the right which he has asserted in this country for a long time, and which is almost universally accorded to him. I cannot see why, because a man is a seaman, and because he goes to a foreign port, or a port in one of our Crown colonies, that he should be deprived of the rest which he would have if he went to Australia. For instance, in Australia Sunday labour is forbidden, and why is it forbidden? It is because there the working men themselves have a vote, and they accordingly make their influence felt. But in a Crown colony that is not the case. The Governor, of course, if he desires to obtain support from anybody, goes naturally to the Chamber of Commerce; but the Chamber of Commerce is composed of employers, and employers are not so anxious as they ought to be in many cases that workmen should have a day's rest. I hold that Her Majesty's Government cannot say that they are not responsible for this state of things. If this were a self-governing colony, they might say that in a self-governing colony, of course, the vote of the working people—of the mass of the population—has to be considered there is no working population in this Crown colony which has a vote; and, therefore, I hold it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government to see that no injustice is put upon the working classes in these colonies, which are under their care. I am not one of those Sabbatarians who think that under no-circumstances should work be performed upon a Sunday; but I do say this, that there should be shown some great necessity before work is carried out on a Sunday, and I cannot understand why this should be done by these steamship companies, some of whom send their vessels to Australia, because when their vessels get to Australia they manage to carry on their work during the working days of the week, and yet when they go to a Crown colony like Hong Kong they profess to be unable to do that, and allege that they are obliged to work their men on Sundays. The actual state of the case is this: that in the Treaty Ports of China work is forbidden on Sundays, but in our own ports it is permitted. Now, I consider that is a scandal; and the result is that if a shipowner desires to give his seamen rest upon a Sunday at Hong Kong he finds himself at a great disadvantage. But there are some shipowners who are courageous enough to do it. Mr. Laing, of Sunderland, a steam ship owner, when one of his vessels was at Hong Kong last refused to allow his men to work on Sunday, and he thus put himself to-great disadvantage. I do not think it is fair that those shipowners who do their duty towards their men should be put at a disadvantage because other shipowners work their men upon every day in the week. My Lords, I do not intend to ask now for Papers, but unless some satisfactory reply is given me, I intend next Session to move again in this matter, and to ask for a Return of Papers, giving the names of the companies and employers who work their men on Sundays, the names of the ships, and the number of Sundays upon which the men are employed in Sunday labour.


My Lords, my attention has been called to the remarks of his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to which the noble Earl has referred, but the question was brought under my notice last year when I received a letter from the Rev. Mr. Bowyer, who has taken great interest in this subject, and I at once communicated the contents of that letter to the Governors of Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements at Singapore, and asked them to report upon the matter. The Governor of Hong Kong expressed his desire to see Sunday labour diminished at the docks and wharves of that port, but, after full inquiry into the subject and consideration of the difficulties of compulsory legislation, he came to the conclusion that such compulsory legislation on the Sunday labour question was not desirable, and, although I am not prepared to assent to all the Governor's reasons which he advanced in support of that decision, I regret to say that I am obliged to concur in the decision myself. The same decision was arrived at by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, who expressed himself very warmly in sympathy with the desire of those who wished to see Sunday labour diminished. He has himself taken steps towards diminishing Sunday labour, because in all Government contracts a provision is now inserted that work under those contracts shall not be carried on on Sunday, except in very urgent cases and under special authority. But after communicating with the Chambers of Commerce, the leading merchants, and the unofficial members of the Council, who represent the communities in these Crown colonies, the Governor of the Straits Settlements came to the same conclusion as that arrived at by the Governor of Hong Kong, that compulsory legislation was not desirable. The answers that were received by him from the Chambers of Commerce and the leading merchants were certainly not of an encouraging nature. I took the opportunity of consulting both these Governors when they were in England on leave, in order to ascertain whether any compromise could be effected, whether there was any kind of legislation which could be introduced which would diminish this Sunday labour, but I regret to say that I found no compromise was possible. I am distinctly opposed to compulsory legislation on this point, that is to say, forcing against the views of the unofficial members legislation by an official vote. The case of Australia, which has been referred to, is very different. In the first place, as in other colonies where there is a Custom- house, Sunday labour can be prevented indirectly by closing the Custom-house, but in Hong Kong and Singapore Customhouses do not exist. I am not aware—though I may be wrong in this—that in Australia any Act prohibiting Sunday labour is in force. The working men themselves have declined to work on Sunday, and have thereby indirectly secured for themselves freedom from work on that day, but I am not aware that there is any compulsory or direct legislation on the point. The Colonial Governors will do all they can to discourage Sunday labour, but I do not think anything can be done in this particular branch of labour unless it can be obtained by the voluntary unanimity upon the subject of the members of the Chambers of Commerce and the leading merchants in the colonies, and also of the leading merchants here who have partners or agents in the colonies. In that way pressure may be put upon the Local Legislatures, and ultimately some measure may be introduced which will put an end to Sunday labour at the docks and wharves in these colonies. But at present I am bound to say I do not think there is that feeling in the colonies which would justify compulsory legislation.


My Lords, I think we are greatly obliged to the noble Earl for calling attention to this matter, which I think your Lordships will agree is one of no slight importance. I think we all agree that in cases of emergency we should not stand in the way of Sunday labour, but this is a matter which we are told affects 120,000 seamen at Hong Kong, and a very large number also at Singapore. I must confess I do not think the answer of the noble Lord is quite conclusive as to why a thing should be impossible in Hong Kong which is possible in Australia. As a matter of fact, work in connection with shipping is carried on upon Sundays in the Crown colonies alone. I cannot help thinking that we require more information upon this subject in order to get at the actual facts, and I would suggest to the noble Earl whether during the next few months he could not address questions to the Governors of all the colonies inquiring of them what are the regulations and practice upon this matter in those colonies. We shall then be better able to talk about this matter. It cannot be left in its present position. The feeling of seamen is rising very strongly upon this question of Sunday labour, and the question will have to be pursued further, but before anything more is said, I think it is very desirable that we should get accurate information from each of the colonies, and I have no doubt that the noble Earl will see no objection to sending out Circulars for the purpose I have mentioned, so that we may be in possession of the actual facts in regard to both Crown and self-governing colonies.


I need only add that it will afford me very great pleasure to adopt the suggestion of the noble Earl, and that I will direct a Circular to be sent out as he suggests.