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Looking back on the whole action of the Grand Committee with respect to laundries, it is almost impossible to understand upon what principles it can have framed so ineffective a clause. There are, of course, still to be found opponents of any legal regulation of the conditions of labour, sincere and honest believers in the axiom that free and equal bargaining between employer and employed may be trusted to secure for every class the best possible surroundings. But the great mass of educated public opinion now admits that, at any rate for children and women, such free and equal bargaining means practical compulsion to put up with whatever sanitary arrangements and hours of labour the employer sees fit to ordain. This conclusion from our prolonged experience of factory legislation is now acted on as a matter of course in every other industry. Why, therefore, should any exception have been made for commercial laundries? There can in this case be no fear of foreign competition or ruining the industry. Clothes must in any event continue to be washed, and to be washed within the United Kingdom. The answer is, we fear, that members of Parliament had some dim idea that (although there was no economic objection) to regulate the hours of laundries involved some personal inconvenience to the ladies who administer the domestic details of the household. It has, for instance, been gravely alleged as an argument against prohibiting Sunday labour in laundries that, if a lady had suddenly to go abroad, it would be very inconvenient not to be able to get her clothes home from the wash on Monday or Tuesday. In thousands of middle-class households it was imagined, no doubt, that the accepted domestic routine might have in some way to be altered if a limit was set to the hours during which the laundry was at work. There are several recorded instances in which beneficent factory legislation has been obstructed and delayed from a genuine fear that it would involve pecuniary loss to an industry, and eventually destroy the means of livelihood of the workers. But this is the first time that the personal convenience of private households has been made an excuse for excluding a large class of women and girls from the protection of the law.
As a matter of fact, there is no reason to believe that the requirement of proper conditions of work in laundries would involve any appreciable inconvenience to the customers. Almost all the objections that are made to limiting the hours of laundry work, in the manner adopted for other industries, would disappear if customers would exercise ordinary thoughtfulness and reasonable consideration in their demands. At present an almost invariable custom requires that all the work should be collected on Mondays and returned on Fridays or Saturdays, thereby necessarily hampering the commencement of the work early in the week, and putting undue pressure on the workers towards the end of the week. Is there any insuperable objection to work being collected and delivered from something like half the customers on Wednesdays or Fridays instead of Mondays ? The small hand laundries especially declare that this arrangement would be helpful to them. Here is an opening for the display of a little of that practical help which is perhaps not so popular as more conspicuous forms of philanthropy. Ladies who show much sentimental sympathy with the 'woes of workers' have been known indignantly to refuse a request from their laundress that they would allow their work to be collected and delivered on days less inconvenient than Mondays and Saturdays. It is not for a moment suggested that such an arrangement would entirely remedy the evil of over-pressure; but if some of the better provided households would fall in with the suggestion, it would make it possible for the poorer classes to obtain the 'clean change' for Sunday, without heaping up all the work on certain days in the week, and leaving the women nearly idle on others. Unfortunately, any arrangement of this kind is not likely to be proposed by laundry employers, fearful of displeasing their customers, unless they are pressed into it by the requirements of the law. It is to the law that we owe the beginning of many of our good habits, especially those which are based on consideration of the needs and convenience of our fellow-citizens.
5 A vague rumour has been put into circulation that the Act has caused clothes to be sent to Belgium to be washed. We have investigated this rumour, and find that it is absolutely without foundation, and that the cost of carriage to and from Belgium or France would be probibitive,
What, then, are the conclusions to which the experience of the 1895 Act points as regards the hours of labour in laundries ? It seems essential that the amending Bill, which the Government cannot surely long delay, should observe the following points. It must, to begin with, either exclude, or deal separately with, the religious or philanthropic 'institution laundries.' It ought, at any rate, to secure absolutely the Sunday day of rest, by prohibiting any commercial laundry from working on that day. It must, we think, extend to ' young persons' in laundries the same absolute protection against overtime as is secured to them in every other regulated industry. Night work, moreover, ought clearly to be forbidden for girls under 18, if not (as in other industries) also for women. There is no reason why the hours of labour should be longer for laundry women than for the women in other trades. And the whole experience of factory legislation in the past makes it quite clear that, if we really wish the law to be effective, the hours of labour and the meal times must be precisely specified, the times of beginning and ending work being either fixed by the Act, or, at any rate, so defined in advance, with adequate notice by the employer to the Factory Inspector, as to make it an offence for the laundry to be found at work outside these limits.
For the Industrial Sub-committee of the National Union of Women Workers.
LAUNDRIES IN RELIGIOUS HOUSES
It has been felt, even by those who fully recognise the need of State inspection of all public institutions as a general rule, that the peculiar circumstances of 'Religious,' and especially of Penitentiary Houses, constitute a claim to exemption. No one can deny, to start with, that the inmates of penitentiaries are not independent workers, serving under a wage contract. They do not, like women in a commercial laundry, sell to an employer a definite part of their strength and time, but place themselves under special treatment, as in a true sense invalids.
1. It is urged that Inspectors' visits would inevitably cause excitement among the inmates, to the destruction of order and discipline.
2. That in penitentiaries, the standing proportion of inefficient hands being always at least one-fifth of the whole, some elasticity as to hours is especially necessary, to prevent, on heavy days,' overpressure on the skilled and diligent hands.
3. That all needful 'outside' supervision is already exercised by committees or other voluntary authorities.
I think that, on consideration, it will be seen that the arguments in favour of inspection outweigh these objections.
Exemptions are always to be looked at with suspicion. Is it desirable to maintain exemptions from the scope of a law meant to secure wholesome conditions of labour, in the case of workers least qualified to fight their own battles ?
It is, of course, true that no inmate of penitentiary institutions can either enter or remain there against her own will. But, short of the extreme step of leaving a shelter which in most cases is all that stands between them and ruin, these girls have no choice but to fall in with the rules of the place. Thus, under the irresponsible management of an unwise or unscrupulous head, it is not to be denied that abuses might prevail.
I would now endeavour to meet the above-named objections.
(1) The danger of anything like excitement among the inmates of penitentiaries is by no means imaginary. Their past lives have been governed by mere impulse, and ruined by lack of self-control. All experience shows the need of guarding them from anything that upsets the orderly routine of the day.
But must State inspection necessarily involve any such upsetting' at all? Doubtless the arrival of a Government gentleman,' notebook in hand, who should question the girls and put it into their heads to get up grievances, would wreck the best-managed penitentiary in the land. Equally hazardous would be the posting-up in the work-rooms and wash-houses of factory regulations, inviting the workers to send complaints to the Inspector.
But very slight modifications would obviate these difficulties.
To avoid any harmful excitement, all that would be necessary would be (a) that the Inspector should be a woman; (b) that her official position should be unknown to the girls ; (c) that her visits should be unexpected; (d) that the factory regulations should not be hung up in sight of the girls. In addition, it might be well to make it a general rule that the Inspectress should not question the girls. There can be no doubt as to (a) being made a sine quâ non; as to (6) little difficulty is likely to be raised. Nor would any but a very zealous new 'Jack-in-office consider it desirable to question the girls. She would see them at work, at meals, at recreation ; she would have full opportunity of judging of their surroundings, their conditions of work, the sanitary state of the buildings, &c. She would thus arrive at the truth by far more certain methods than by questioning the hands themselves. And she would point out privately to the Superior or to the managing Committee anything that appeared open to objection. All this could be done, and done thoroughly, without raising a ripple of excitement among the inmates.
(2) Under the new Factory Act, the limitation of laundry hours is weekly, not daily. That is to say, the maximum number of hours a day may vary with different days, provided the maximum number of hours per week be not exceeded.
Now, in penitentiaries, las a matter of discipline, the hours of work must needs be strictly laid down, though it is true they must vary a little on different days. Therefore compliance with the law would cause little, if any, change in the arrangements.
(3) Where'outside' supervision is already efficiently exercised by voluntary committees of management, no alarm need be felt at the visit of an Inspectress, who would find and report all to be in satisfactory order.
But in the cases, which may or may not be numerous, where no such committees exist, or where they are remiss in their duty, some form of Government inspection would obviously be most desirable. We are not without warning, at the present day, of the harm that comes of even well-intentioned, ably-conducted, and religiouslyinspired despotisms. In itself evil, as most of us hold a despotism to be, it is not always deprived of its power for mischief by being wielded by well-meaning despots. Rather is its harmfulness increased by the blind confidence it thus inspires in the minds of the enthusiastic. In the last resort, the Home Secretary should have power to institute a special private inquiry for the remedying of proved abuses.
May I now point out that, so far from penitentiary laundries having any reason to fear indictment for cruelly long hours, the new Factory Act provisions, 1895, section 22, actually permit of longer hours than are even possible in bonâ-fide religious houses ; the reason being that time has to be made for chapel services, two or three daily, varying in length from ten to twenty or thirty minutes ?
In a large House of Mercy well known to me (and which is more or less typical of all similar institutions under Church of England or Roman Catholic management with regard to the time devoted to chapel services), the time-table is as follows: Mondays
9 hours. Tuesdays
9 hours. Wednesdays.
91 hours. Thursdays
94 hours. Fridays
7 hours. Saturdays
Total working hours per week, less meal times, 48 . Half the girls come down at 6 A.M. and half at 6.30 A.M. They never work later than 8 P.M. The last chapel service is at 9 P.M. All are in bed before 10.15 every night. These hours are moderation itself compared with the twelve hours a day sanctioned by the new Act.
In this institution, at any rate, overtime is absolutely unknown, except on three days in the year, for the purpose of securing to the girls three whole holidays; and on these occasions, which are eagerly looked forward to, the girls rise an hour or so earlier, and have an extra breakfast. On no occasion, and under no circumstances, is any work done on Sundays, Good Friday, or Christmas Day.
The chapel services, as breaks in the monotony of hard work, are invariably popular, even with new-comers, who may not at first be religiously impressed by them.
From inquiries I have made as to undenominational laundry homes, it would appear that their weekly average of working hours is from 8 to 9 hours, beginning at 6.30 or 7 A.M. and ending at 6, 6.30, or 7 P.M.; they have prayers morning and evening, an hour's or halfhour's recreation at midday, evening classes or evening walk. Also Saturday half holiday.
In one of these institutions, on very rare occasions, 101 hours have been worked.
No Sunday work is ever done.