HL Deb 19 December 1945 vol 138 cc907-10

2.57 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill which is entitled the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Bill might have been described as the Decasualization of Dock Labour Bill, for it seeks to settle, once and for all, the problems of decasualization in an industry which has, for more years than most of us can remember, been subject to the evils attendant upon a system of casual labour. Your Lordships are familiar with the causes of casual labour in the docks. This problem first became the subject of attention and, indeed, of anxiety towards the end of the last century. This was due to the efforts of the union which had been founded under great difficulties in 1888. It was due also to the writings of the late Charles Booth in his London and Riverside Labour and his monumental work Life and Labour of the People in London. It was also due, in part, to the public attention drawn to this subject by the historic dock strike of 1889 with which were identified the names of those conspicuous figures—alas now dead—John Burns, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, and which resulted in the award of the "docker's tanner" which represented a minimum rate of sixpence an hour.

Apart from the fundamental difficulties of the industry which give rise to the casual nature of the employment. The position was aggravated by the excessive numbers of men seeking employment in the docks, the methods of engagement and the general conditions associated with the work. For instance, a man might be engaged for, and paid off after, only an hour's work. The men who sought work at the docks fell into three main categories. There were those who were bona-fide dockers who, normally and consistently, attended at the docks and looked to dock work for their ordinary means of livelihood. Then there were the men normally employed in some other industry but who, particularly during a period of trade depression, sought employment in the docks and wharves. And then of course there were the so-called unemployables. It was, and indeed commonly it still is, assumed, quite wrongly, that dock work is entirely unskilled and can be done efficiently by anyone. There was, therefore, a tendency among those employed in other industries to resort to the docks regardless of the effect on the employment of the regular dockers. The excessive labour supply which thus became available meant that cheap labour was indeed obtainable, but it was uneconomic because it was often inefficient. Then there was the haphazard way in which men were selected by the ganger which lent itself to many abuses which became the subject of controversy and discussion familiar to your Lordships. Those, therefore, who were interested in this problem of the docks during the later part of the last century sought to secure the setting up of what has been called a "fence" round the general dock workers and granting to them some token or tally, which doubtless many of your Lordships have seen, by which they could be recognized at the call places and thus be enabled to obtain preference of engagement.

It was thought that by this means the bona-fide docker could be assured of a larger share of the available work. This, indeed, was the germ of the principle of registration. It is perhaps worth while noting that although a good deal of amplification has taken place meanwhile, the essential principle put forward nearly half a century back still holds good. One of the earliest attempts to erect a "fence" was in the early nineties, when' the dock companies in London which preceded the Port of London Authority inaugurated a system of tickets, the object being to group the men to be employed in order of preference of engagement. Ultimately there were three classes of ticket—the A ticket for the regular men, the B ticket for the first preference casuals, and the C ticket for the remainder of the casuals. This system met with a good deal of success, but owing to, its limited scope it did not prevent the influx into the dock areas of very large numbers of men unable to find employment elsewhere. It was in 1912 in Liverpool that the first comprehensive effort was made to regulate the number of dock workers in a port and to systematize the method of engagement. The system provided for registration of dockers, for the issue of the metal tally to each registered docker, and for the weekly payment of wages at one office, at a single office, notwithstanding that a man might have been employed by several employers during the week. The employers who were parties to the scheme undertook to give preference of employment to the tally holders, and not to engage any other man when suitable registered men were available.

After a few years came Lord Shaw's Committee, which urged the importance of schemes of registration, both for employees and for employers, and subsequently the schemes of registration were established in a considerable number of ports. Following the Maclean Committee of 1930 to 1931 they were extended so that upon the outbreak of war in 1939 registration schemes were in effect in all the principal ports of the country, with the exception of Glasgow where rather special conditions at that time prevailed. There were two weaknesses in the schemes at that time. In the first place they were purely voluntary, and it was impossible to enforce them and fully implement their underlying principles. In the second place they carried with them no guaranteed wage. It was not until the beginning of 1941 through the present Foreign Secretary, who perhaps, earned almost his first great reputation in the public mind as the Dockers' K.C., that the decasualization of dock-labour was really tackled in earnest.

In March of that year schemes were established in Merseyside and Clydeside under the control of the Minister of War Transport, and in these schemes for the first time the dockers enjoyed a guaranteed weedy wage. These schemes were entered into voluntarily by the employers and workers alike. Later in the year the then Minister of Labour and National Service made the Essential Work (Dock Labour) Order under which the dock labour schemes were set up in all the principal ports of the country. These schemes have been formally approved by the Minister of Labour and National Service, and they are' administered by the National Dock Labour Corporation, of which my noble friend Lord Ammon is the distinguished Chairman. Under these schemes dockers enjoy the benefit of a weekly guaranteed wage.

In the short retrospect in which I have indulged, it is clear, from that alone, that it is a far cry from the days of the 89 strike for a "tanner" an hour to the present time, when practically every docker in the country can look forward to a weekly wage packet which he knows will not fall below a specified amount. The objects of this Bill, which it must have been a great satisfaction to my right honourable friend Mr. George Isaacs, the Minister of Labour, to introduce and to see pass through the House of Commons, is to ensure that never again will casual labour with its attendant ills be a characteristic of this important industry. Having given an over-all description of the purposes of this Bill, I do not think your Lordships will require me to go through the clauses. I am wholly at your Lordships' disposal, but on the assumption that I interpret the minds of your Lordships correctly, I now move the Second Reading of this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a— (Lord Nathan.)

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

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