Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

spring-45-cheapclothes

Contemporary cartoon on the evils of ‘sweated’ factory labour

Yesterday’s case looked at the regulation of living conditions and featured two landlords who were fined heavily for allowing their rental properties to fall into a ‘filthy’ state, ‘unfit for human habitation’. That was in Bermondsey, south London, an area identified with poverty and poor housing in Charles Booth’s poverty maps.

North of the Thames the East End, and in particular the narrow streets and courts of Whitechapel were equally synonymous with degradation. Here too  in the 1880s there was a contemporary concern about the ‘sweating’ in the clothing trade.  ‘Sweating’ referred to the exploitation of (often foreign) workers, forced to work long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions, for very low pay.

In 1890 a House of Lords select committee reported that ‘the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females’ in the clothing industry in London. The Factory Acts, widely flouted and largely ineffectual, were supposed to prevent dangerous or unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and to limit the amount of hours men, women and especially children, could be asked to work in any given week.

In May 1886 a Whitechapel tailor, Harris Solomons, was summoned to the Thames Police Court to answer charges that he was overworking some of his female employees.

Solomons, most probably one of the East End’s well-established Jewish community, operated from 8 Fieldgate Street, Spitalfields, close to the Bell Foundry and not far from the London Hospital.  In just a few years this area would become forever associated with the unsolved murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The summons against the Whitechapel tailor was prosecuted by a factory inspector, Gerald Slade. He gave evidence that he had visited the defendant’s property four times in the last two months. This suggests either that the authorities were operating a crackdown on the clothing industry or Mr Solomons was a name on a targeted hit list.

Slade discovered that along with himself, Solomons employed two women. He found that these women were required to work until 9 o’clock most days, sometimes as late as 10. On Sundays they worked till 4 in the afternoon.

The inspector informed Solomons that if he expected his workers to toil on a Sunday he must let them leave no later than 8 in the evening on weekdays. Given that Solomons was in all likelihood Jewish and assuming his workers were, then they would not have worked Saturdays or late on a  Friday night, because of religious restrictions.

This constrained the working week and competition was great in the period so it seems Solomons was flouting the regulations of the Factory Acts that had been passed in part to protect labourers from such exploitation.

When Slade visited the premises on the following Sunday he had found both women, and the tailor, hard at work at half-past five, well beyond the 4 o’clock cut off point. As a result he had summoned Solomons for infringing the act.

Solomons pleaded innocent and tried to argue that there were special circumstances. He had a deadline, and since ‘the holidays’ were imminent he needed to get this job finished. In total Slade brought 3 charges, all similar, against the tailor and Mr Lushington found against him. He fined him 206d in the main case, and 1 plus costs in the other two. It was an expensive day in court for the tailor and a day lost in the workshop to boot.

Whether this, or similar cases, had any real immediate or long term effect on the operation of the ‘rag trade’ or on workshop conditions in London is debatable. The select committee noted that the worst offenders were very hard to prosecute. Evidence had to produced  which usually meant an inspector had to catch an employer ‘red handed’ or an employee had to be a ‘whistle-blower’. The latter were extremely hard to find because work was at a  premium in the late 1800s and many of those recruited to work in these ‘sweat shops’ were desperate for the few pennies they earned.

Contemporaries like Annie Besant attempted to explore the trade but the huge numbers of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived Eastern European refugees, escaping persecution or famine in Russia) meant that there was a ready-made surplus of labour. A whistle-blower risked their job and their survival for little or no reward.

The way to fight ‘sweating’ then, was collective action. Given the small numbers of unionised labour in the 1870s and ’80s this was hard. Besant and the women that worked in Bryant & May match factory in the East End did, however, later show the capital and the world how determined and well-organised collective action could force an employer to address the concerns about pay and conditions.

The lesson was not lost on the dockers who organised successfully in 1889. The Match Girls and the Great Dock strikes probably represented the high point of late Victorian Trades Unionism. Over the next century workers’ rights would be championed, protected, and then gradually eroded from the 1980s onwards. We might remember then why we need to protect workers from exploitative employers: women being asked to work 6 days a week from early morning to late at night, with no rest, no lunch break, and very low pay is reason enough.

Exploitation has not gone away, and never will under the model of capitalism that exists in Britain and the world. Anyone that is any doubts about this need only look at trafficked workers, the existence of sweatshops in the developing world, the need for a minimum wage, and the modern phenomena of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts. Capitalism has never been able to successfully police itself, which is why we need the state to do that.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 5, 1886]

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