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THE SWEATING SYSTEM.
SWEATING IN THE TECHNICAL SENSE. The curse which has, hitherto, persistently dogged the footsteps of advancing civilisation is the gross inequality with which its advantages have been shared. Whilst one section of the people have enjoyed the benefits of civilised life with few or none of its drawbacks, another section have been ground down by exhausting toil, amidst hideous and unhealthy surroundings, without sufficient food to sustain them in health, and with no chance whatever of developing their higher faculties, or claiming their share in the spiritual inheritance of the race; in short they have suffered all the privations and miseries of the savage without his open-air life and freedom from continuous toil.
These truths were brought home to the minds of well-to-do people, some years ago, by the shocking revelations about the life of the London poor in the “ Bitter Cry of Outcast London." A thrill of horror ran through “society," and it was felt that it was high time to enquire into the truth of the statements made in it, and if they were substantiated, to find a remedy for such terrible evils. A great deal was talked about the “sweating” of the poorer workers, and of the sufferings they endured in consequence; but people were far from having a clear idea of what they meant by the term. So difficult is it, indeed, to exactly define “sweating," that it will be well to observe how, in the course of the official and other enquiries into the matter, the word has gradually defined itself. One figure loomed large in the popular imagination of the time—the “sweater "-who by means of his “system” of sub-contracting wrung wealth for himself from the toil of haggard wretches working in indescribably filthy “dens," for next to impossibly long hours, barely keeping soul and body together with the starvation wages they earned.
It was with some such picture in their minds that the Board of Trade, in 1887, ordered their labour correspondent, Mr. John Burnett, to enquire into "what is known as the Sweating System at the East End of London, especially in the tailoring trade.” In his report to the Board he defined the system as “one under which the sub-contractors undertake to do work in their own houses or small workshops, and employ others to do it, making a profit for themselves by the difference between the contract price and the wages they pay their assistants." This system he found to prevail throughout the East End. “The smaller sweaters,” he reported, “use part of their dwelling accomodation, and in the vast majority of cases work is carried on under conditions in the highest degree filthy and unsanitary. In small rooms not more than nine or ten feet square, heated by a coke fire for the pressers, and at night lighted by flaming jets of gas, six, eight, ten, and even a dozen workers may be crowded." These workers have frequently to be in the workshop at 6 a.m. to start working, or to await the arrival of work, and in the busy season have to work right on to midnight with five or ten minutes for dinner, which, said a witness examined by the Lords' Committee, “we have on the chair by the side where we are working.” Tea or coffee supplied by the master is taken cold because, as the same witness explained, “we cannot allow ourselves time to drink warm coffee, because the work does not earn the price, and we must earn so much as to get a living for our families." For this labour the average wage would vary from 10s. or 11s. to 158. per week. Such is the "sweating system” as described by Mr. Burnett, and in the voluminous “Report and Evidence of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Sweating System in 1890.”
That this system still flourishes the following wellauthenticated case will show. A firm of clerical tailors give out much of their work to a contractor, paying him from 28. to 38. 6d. a pair for trousers. These he has made by eight women and two men, in a room with a low ceiling and very bad sanitary arrangements, over a public house, for which he pays 88. a week. There is a coke fire and several gas jets in the room. The workers, other than the machinist and presser, earn about 88. or 98. a week, working from 8 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m., with an hour for dinner and “tea anyhow.” On the labour of these people the sweater lives in comfort. The following extract from the Daily News of July 24th, 1896, furnishes even more conclusive evidence of the continued existence of as complete a system of sweating as was revealed by the reports of 1887 or 1890-91.
Judge Emden, sitting at Lambeth County Court yesterday, offered some strong remarks upon the rate of remuneration of tailoresses. His Honour had before him an action in which a clothing manufacturer sued a tailoress to recover 19 kharkee coats, which she was detaining. Plaintiff stated that he took work from wholesale manufacturers, and was now engaged with a large order of special kharkee coats for export to South Africa. The defendant was among those of his employees who
did work at home. She was entrusted with 19 of these coats for the purpose of working in them by hand five button-holes and sewing on four buttons. The rate of pay for this was d. per coat, or 9d. per dozen.
Judge Emden (surprised): Ninepence per dozen, or each ? Plaintiff: Ninepence per dozen, and that is the usual rate. Judge Emden: How long does it take to do a coat ? Defendant: It cannot be done under an hour.
Plaintiff, with some emphasis, informed his honour that be only got 41d. per coat for cutting, making, button-holing, and pressing. He had to cut things “ very fine” himself or he lost on his jobs. Defendant, he added, accepted the work at 9d. per dozen, and in many cases he (plaintiff) was without any profit.
Judge Emden: I suppose you will say next that no one makes a profit.
Plaintiff: I don't but the capitalist does. Proceeding, plaintiff added that he turned out as many as 500 or 600 coats a day.
Judge Emden: I am sorry for the poor people who work for you at the rate you mention. It is said, and said very truly, that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives. This case affords a shocking disclosure of how this woman-and she is only one of a class—has been paid for her labour.
Yet although the sub-contractor figures largely in the popular imagination, and although there is no doubt that he often makes a good living out of the toil of others, the enquiries proved—as Mr. Lakeman, the well-known factory inspector, told the Lords' Committee that there is sweating without sub-contracting and sub-contracting without sweating. In many cases the contractor works as hard and as long as his hands, and gets little more than they do-in fact is sweated himself—and on the other hand some contractors pay decent wages to their employees and only work them during factory hours.
The evidence given before the Lords’ Committee and the
researches of Mr. Chas. Booth show that “sweating" extends beyond the “Sweating System” and that many people working in their own homes on their own materials, or on those furnished them direct from the manufacturer or dealer, are sweated quite as badly as the occupants of any “sweater's den." This comes out quite clearly in the pathetic case of Mrs. Isabella Killick, trouser finisher, who was examined by the Lords' Committee, and which is one out of several similar cases examined before the same Committee, and typical of many thousands of others. She was a married woman whose husband had been a boiler maker earning good wages, but who was then dying in an infirmary.
“I have three children to support, the eldest ten years of age, the youngest three. I can't earn more than 18. 2d. a day and I have to find my own materials, altogether I do not clear 18. a day, not after finding my own trimmings, firing and all. I am up at six in the morning and never done till eight at night. I have to go for my work and take it back again. About three months of the year work is slack. I am then glad to get anything to do, cleaning or washing. I cannot be without work as I have three little ones to support.”
“I take it from what you say,” she was asked, “ that you manage to clear 18. a day by your work after providing your materials ? "_“After the things.” “Then there is 28. for rent!"_“Yes.” “And therefore all you have is 58. really a week to live upon ?"_“Yes.” “And out of that you have to pay firing and your living ?”—“Yes, firing and light.” “I get a herring and a cup of tea, that is the chief of my living with the rent to pay and three children eating very hearty. As for meat, I do not expect I get meat once in six ononths.”
In this case there is no sweater grinding down his hands. The poor woman goes to the dealer herself, makes her own contract (?), brings home her work, and gets all the