1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sweating System

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SWEATING SYSTEM, a term loosely used in connexion with oppressive industrial conditions in certain trades. This “system” originated early in the 19th century, when it was known as “the contract system.” Contractors supplying the government with clothing for the army and navy got the work done by giving it out to sub-contractors, who in some cases made the garments or boots themselves, with the assistance of other workmen, and in others sublet their sub-contracts to men who carried them out with similar help. Afterwards this plan was adopted in the manufacture of ready-made clothing for civilian use, and of “bespoke” garments (made to the order of the customer). Previously the practice had been for coats, &c., to be made up by workmen employed on the premises of the master tailor or working together in common workshops, but in either case directly employed by the master tailor. The new plan brought a large number of workpeople possessing little skill and belonging to a very needy class into competition with the regular craftsmen; and in consequence a fall in wages took place, which affected, to a greater or less extent, the whole body of workmen in the tailoring trade. The work was done in overcrowded and insanitary rooms, and the earnings of the workers were extremely low. In 1850 a vigorous agitation against “the sweating system” was commenced, based mainly upon a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle, which were followed by a pamphlet, Cheap Clothes and Nasty, written by Charles Kingsley under the name of “Parson Lot,” and by his novel Alton Locke. Kingsley and his friends, the Christian Socialists, proposed to combat the evils of the sweating system by promoting the formation of co-operative workshops; and several experiments of this nature were made, which, however, met with little success. Except that in 1876-1877 the outcry against the sweating system was renewed (principally on the ground of the risk of infection from garments made up in insanitary surroundings), the matter attracted little public notice until 1887, when the system again came into prominence in connexion with the immigration of poor foreigners into East London, where large numbers of these people were employed in various trades, especially in the tailoring, boot making, and cabinet-making industries, under conditions generally similar to those complained of in the earlier agitations. In 1888 a select committee of the House of Lords was appointed to inquire into the subject; and after a lengthy investigation—in the course of which evidence was given by 291 witnesses in relation to tailoring, boot-making, furriery, shirt-making, mantle-making, cabinet-making and upholstery, cutlery and hardware manufacture, chain and nail-making, military accoutrements, saddlery and harness-making, and dock labour—this committee presented its final report in April 1890. The committee found themselves unable to assign an exact meaning to the term “sweating,” but enumerated the following conditions as those to which that name was applied: “(1) A rate of wages inadequate to the necessities of the workers or disproportionate to the work done; (2) excessive hours of labour; (3) the insanitary state of the houses in which the work is carried on.” They stated that, “as a rule, the observations made with respect to sweating apply, in the main, to unskilled or only partially skilled workers, as the thoroughly skilled workers can almost always obtain adequate wages.” With regard to the sweating system, the committee declared that this cannot be regarded as responsible for the industrial conditions described; for “the middleman is the consequence, not the cause of the evil; the instrument, not the hand which gives motion to the instrument, which does the mischief. Moreover, the middleman is found to be absent in many cases in which the evils complained of abound.” While, on the one hand, we find, as pointed out by this committee, that “sweating” exists without the presence of the “middleman” (the fact, being that many grossly underpaid workpeople are in the direct employment of large firms), it is, on the other hand, no less true that the “middleman” (i.e. subordinate employer) is common in numerous trades in which there is no trace of any such oppression of the workpeople employed by the sub-contractors as is denoted by the term “sweating.” Thus, for example, in shipbuilding in many cases men work in squads, the leading workmen employing their own helpers; in the cotton trade the mule-minders engage and pay their own piecers, and the weavers their own tenters; in the manufactured-iron trade, in mining, &c., a good deal of work is done under sub-employers employing their own assistants, none of these sub-contractors being alleged to “sweat” their helpers. There is, in short, no system of employment which can properly be called “the sweating system.” At the same time, wherever workers possessing a small degree of skill and deficient in organization are employed under a number of small masters, there “sweating” is likely to obtain.

The common idea that the “sweater” is an unscrupulous tyrant, who fulfils no useful function, and who makes enormous profits, has no counterpart in fact. Whatever may have been the case in earlier days, before the internecine competition of the “middlemen” had time to produce its inevitable effects upon the position of these sub-employers, it may now be considered to be beyond dispute that the small master (“sub-contractor,” “garret master,” “fogger,” &c.) usually works at least as hard as his employés, and that his gains are, as a rule, no more than a fair return for the work which he performs—work which in many instances consists in doing some difficult part of the job, and in all cases in organizing the labour engaged. So far as concerns the “manufacturer,” by whom the “sweater” is employed, and who is clearly the causa causans of “the sweating system,” for him the practice of getting his work done in outside workshops is undoubtedly convenient, especially in localities where rent is high, because he is saved the expense of providing accommodation for those who do his work. He is also free from restrictions as to the subdivision of labour and the employment of a certain class of workpeople which the sentiment of the regular factory workers would impose upon him. The regular tailor, for example, thinks that no one who has not, by a lengthy period of tuition, acquired the capacity to make a coat right out ought to be allowed to enter the tailoring trade. But in the workshop of the sub-contractor the work is split up into fractions, each of which is soon learned, so that it becomes possible to introduce into the trade persons possessing no previous training, and generally Willing to work for wages far lower than those to which the regular tailors consider themselves entitled, and which, so long as they are not exposed to the competition of these outsiders, they are usually able to secure. On the other hand, while it may suit the manufacturer, anxious to keep down the cost of production, to give his work out to middlemen, it is beyond question that any form of the “small master” system is necessarily liable to abuse in many directions. Among these small masters the eagerness to secure employment is usually so keen that the work is often taken at a price too low for it to be possible for these sub-employers to pay to their workpeople wages adequate to provide the reasonable requirements of working class life. The workshops of the middlemen are scattered over large districts, and these little masters frequently move their business from one house to another. Both of these are circumstances which tend strongly to make efficient regulation by the factory and the sanitary inspectors very difficult. Not seldom, especially when trade is brisk, these work-places are overcrowded in a manner injurious to health, and in not a few cases their sanitary condition is defective. It will readily be understood that combination among the people employed in these numerous small isolated work-places is much less easy than among the compact bodies of workers employed in large factories, so that any attempt to resist oppressive conditions of employment by trade-union organization meets with serious obstacles. But perhaps the worst of all the features which this method of manufacture presents is the absence of motor power and machinery. The fact that a manufacturer has laid out a large sum in plant, thus entailing a heavy expenditure in “standing charges,” necessarily induces him to do his best to make employment regular. In the little outside workshop, on the other hand, lengthy spells of enforced idleness are followed by short periods of most severe toil, during which the hours of daily labour are prolonged to an inhuman extent. At the same time, the workpeople employed in the ill-equipped workshop of the little master are competing with the much more efficient production of the factory provided with labour-saving machinery driven by steam or other mechanical power; and in many cases their only chance of retaining the work under these circumstances is to take it at starvation prices. But the progress of invention moves fast, and antiquated methods of production are gradually being abandoned. Already, in many of the trades in which the sweating system has hitherto largely prevailed, especially in the tailoring, the boot-making, the cabinet-making and the nail-making industries, the factory system is coming so far to the front in the race for cheapness of production that, although in certain industrial centres, in which the rents of factories are high and a specially abundant supply of needy and unskilled workpeople is available, a good deal of work is still given out to small outside masters, the proportion of the total output manufactured in this manner is day by day diminishing.  (D. Sch.) 

An endeavour has been made in the United Kingdom to combat legislatively the evils of sweating. The Trade Boards Act 1909 established trade boards for trades to which the act applied. The trades specified were ready-made and wholesale tailoring, the making of paper or chip boxes, machine-lace making and chain-making, but the board of trade was given power to apply the act under a provisional order to any other trade in which exceptionally low wages prevailed. The duties of the trade boards are to fix, subject to certain restrictions, minimum rates of wages for time-work for their trades, while they may also fix general minimum rates of wages for piece-work, and these rates may apply either universally to the trade, or to any special process in the work of the trade or to any special class of workers, or to any special area. The rates so fixed become obligatory by order of the board of trade upon the expiration of six months from the date when made by a trade board, but they may, in the meantime, have a limited operation (1) in the absence of a written agreement; (2) where an employer has given written notice to the board of trade that he is willing to-pay them; and (3) in the case of contracts with government departments and local authorities. If the minimum rate of wages has been made obligatory and an employer has been summarily convicted of not paying same, he is liable to a penalty of not exceeding £20 in respect of each offence and to a penalty of not exceeding £5 for each day on which the offence is continued after conviction. He may also be ordered to pay, in addition, a sum equal to the wages due. The trade boards consist of an equal number of representative members of employers and workers, together with appointed members whose number must be less than half the total of representative members. Trade boards may also establish district trade committees with a constitution similar to their own and may delegate to them their powers and duties under the act. Women are eligible for membership of trade boards or district committees indeed, in case of a trade board for a trade in which women are largely employed, at least one of the appointed members must be a woman.