Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

employed by another, no abstract right to employment. He is not entitled to say, You shall purchase my labour, although it cannot benefit you. There is no doubt that the Law of Relief, which directs the parish to find employment for the ablebodied poor, is founded upon a false view of the fundamental principles of political science. There is either capital enough in the country to give employment to the supply of labour, or there is not. If there is not, it is useless to divert it from the support of the workmen it is putting in action, to the relief of the pauper. If there is, it must be because the particular species of labour to which the individual was habituated, has ceased to be beneficial to the capitalist, that the demand for it has subsided. In either case, additional employment can be created only by the increase of capital; and that which cannot be furnished, the poor have surely no right to demand, any more than the Legislature has the power to compel its production.

It is a very different question, whether labour, when actually co-operating with capital in the production of wealth, shall have its due remuneration in the shape of wages. Between the propositions, that every labourer has a right to be employed, and that every labourer who is employed shall be adequately paid for his labour, there is a most material distinction. The state of dependence in which the labouring classes are at all times placed, more or less, upon the holders of capital, tends to render them content with a very small share of the produce of their1 labour; and as the amount of the wages of labour, is always so much deducted from the profits of the capitalist, there is a constant conflict of interests between the workmen and their employer, who, under circumstances leading to a depreciation of the particular kind of labour, has often taken advantage of his power, to reduce the wages even below the price of subsistence. By this means, it is often pretended that he is enabled to give employment, with the same capital, to greater numbers than he could support, were he to give the full wages of labour.

It is easy to perceive the fallacy of this pretext for what amounts to a most unjust as well as a most impolitic species of oppression. It is unjust in two respects; first, to the labourer, not the less because lie consents* to work upon the condition of

* Cases, however, have occurred, in which the consent of the workmen has been altogether dispensed with. In the evidence of Mr. Peter Gregory, before the Committee appointed to consider of the petitions relating to the Ribbon Weavers, the following question occurs: « Have the masters reduced the wages of weaving without • notice?' The answer returned is; 'Yes: in many instances, when 'a man has taken in his work at the end of the week, the master, 'without any previous information, has insisted upon paying less than 'he did the preceding week, and the weaver, being reduced to ex4 treme poverty, has been obliged to submit.'

reduced wages, since the circumstances of which so unfair an advantage is taken, cannot be said to leave him the power of option. He must submit, or starve. Yet the fair price of labour is still his due, and no variations in the profits of stock, can be allowed justly to affect the value of labour. That which determines the share of produce which equitably belongs, in the shape of wages, to the labourer, is either the price of subsistence, (that is to say, the value of money in relation to the necessaries of life,) or the quantity of capital which must be associated with the given proportion of labour, in order to render it productive. This last, however, will operate in contributing to fix the price of the commodity, rather than in determining the value of labour. The variations in the demand for a commodity, which affect its market price, produce, of course, a very gre.it rise or depression in the profits of the capitalist; but, so long as the price of subsistence continues the same, the equitable value of labour remains undiminished; it is therefore the grossest injustice for the capitalist to seek to repair his losses, by a tax upon the in- , dustry of the labourer, in the shape of a reduction of his wages, when the speculation in which his property is embarked, is purely his own, and the average profits upon his stock have been, as they almost always will be found to be, proportioned to the degree of speculation involved in the concern. Those who have no other resource than that physical power of labour which just suffices for their daily maintenance, are, in this case, made ostensibly to share, as partners, in the loss, although they had no corresponding share in the gain of their employer.

The practice of reducing wages below the means of subsistence, is unjust, however, in another respect. The labourer is in the first instance oppressed; and this oppression falls upon, him just in proportion to his honesty and independence in struggling with the reverse in his circumstances. For let these fail him, and, by becoming a pauper, he at once transfers the burden to the community, who, according to the present system, are bound to make up the deficiency in his wages. That is to say, the capitalist, in consequence of the reduction in his own profits, claims the right of appropriating a certain portion of labour gratis, and this method of diminishing his own risk or his own loss, at the expense of the community, he represents ss a favour done to the public, since, as he argues, the burden of pauperism is lessened just so far as he furnishes the wages of employment. But in the first place, no individual has a right, because the supply of labour may at any time reach the point of excess, to serve himself with a double quautity at the same price, since it cannot be pretended that he is not benefited by the whole which he employs. A fall in the market price of his commodities, may leave him smaller profits upon his stock after he has paid the wages of labour; but the labour itself has had the same share as formerly in the business of production, and has lost nothing of its efficient character. The same quantity of labour is still as necessary, and essentially as useful to the agriculturist or to the manufacturer, as before; only, the results are not so profitable; the surplus of tlie expense of production is not so great, and the motive to that particular mode of employing capital, is correspondently weakened. More labour for the same wages, therefore, is requisite, in order to allow of the profit remaining the same. But the question is, Has the employer any right to this additional quantity of labour at the public expense? It is not that he does not require the labour, (for he would not employ men in any work which did not promise to be beneficial, nor yet that he does not require the number of labourers, for it is very seldom, we apprehend, that two men are engaged to do what one man could accomplish, except in the case of roundsmen and parish labourers,) but that he is not so well able to afford the price of labour, and could not otherwise purchase so much in quantity, as formerly. But the purchase of labour, that is to say, the employmeut of the labourer, if it be at a price insufficient for his maintenance, is obviously no benefit to the community. In the case of every honest hard-working labourer who, while in full employment, becomes added to the ranks of paupers, society suffers a positive injury. We are not to look at the sum of relief merely, which is to be extracted from the community in form of a rate, in order -to make up the deficiency of wages, but we are to consider the numerical amount of individuals thus relieved, which, upon the system alluded to, is frightfully increased. And it is this very system whioh converts the bounty nto an individual right, which leads the labourer to demand at the hands of the parish the means of subsistence, not as alms, but as wages, and which, while it negatives the efficiency of labour, destroys the motive to industry. Surely, nothing can be more equitable than that employment and maintenance should go together; that the labourer should have his hire; and if in any particular branches of productive industry, capital and labour are no longer capable, to the same extent as formerly, of beneficial co-operation, let them be suffered to flow into a different channel. For since there can be no redundancy of labour, unless there is either a diminution or a misapplication of capital, a real want of employment must be the effect, not of an excessive population, but of some other cause probably of a local and temporary nature.

These remarks are directly applicable, it is true, only to the Case of the forced depreciation of labour, when, for the same work, inferior wages are given. Where labour is adequately remunerated, the necessity of partial relief may be consequent upon partial employment. But it is notorious, that, to a con-' sidcrable extent, there has prevailed a systematic commutation of wages for poor's rates; a practice which the intelligent author of the " Summary View" justly stigmatises as both 'injurious 'in its consequences, and scandalously dishonest.' ,

'If the actual value of a man's labour is 15s. per week; he is perhaps paid 5s. by his employer, and 10s. by the parish, i. e. if he has a family. Now as far as wages are paid by the rate, it is a positive injustice to those who do pay rate, but who do not employ labourers. It is equally unjust to a labourer without a family; his work is worth 15s., arid he is to receive 5s. only, or 5s. with some small addition. He is obviously cheated of 8 or 10s. weekly. But he may go elsewhere—there is no labour (employment) elsewhere to be got, or the same fraud prevails.

'But the great mischief of the plan is, that the parochial part of the wages is given indiscriminately, so much per head. Every one is upon the parish; most persons receiving very largely; industrious or indolent, it is all the same. Here is very clearly an inherent system of progression, the wonder is, not that the rates amount to 8 or 9s. in the pound ; but that they amount to so little. In fact, all the poor are to be well fed at all events; the whole that can be expected in a parish acting thus, will be idleness, poverty, and poor rates.' p. 79.

The agricultural capitalists were, we believe, the class who first commenced this ruinous system. It was alleged to be bearing hard upon the farmer, that he should have to sustain the burden of maintaining all the poor in employment:—just as if he could possibly employ them without profiting by their labour! When, therefore, the failure of crops and other circumstances occasioned a diminution in their profits, they hit upon the expedient of reducing the wages of labour, and making up the deficiency by a rate. This short-sighted policy, which in many instances cost them, in the shape of an increased rate, more than they nominally saved by the reduction in tho price of labour, has been adopted in turn by other classes, to an extent far more injurious. The Minutes of Evidence relative to the Ribbonweaving trade, contain some highly important representations as to the effects of this system of depreciation. It appears that in the city of Coventry, the aggregate amount of the poor's rates, in the period between January, 1817, and January, 1818, was, nineteen shillings in the pound in the great parish called St. Michael, and fifteen shillings in the parish of the Holy Trinity. The population is about 18,000, out of which nearly one-third receive relief. Of 3,519 houses, 1,100 only are rated to the poor; the remaining inhabitants being incapable of contributing. The greater proportion of thr* persons relieved, are stated to be those who are employed in the Ribbon Trade, and the increase in the poor's rates is unequivocally ascribed by the witnesses^ to inadequate wage*. 'The ribbon weavers in Coventry,' affirms Mr. Carter, (the Town clerk of Coventry, and one of the Directors of the Poor,) 'are all inadequately paid.' There is a practice of taking what are termed half-pay apprentices, which has had the effect of greatly increasing the rate. 'The master '(by the agreement) is to have one-half of the apprentice's 'earnings, and the apprentice the other half, and to maintain ( himself or herself.' The consequence is, that not being able to maintain himself, and the master not being bound to support him, the apprentice becomes a burden upon the poor's rate. This system, of conrse, has the effect of employing and introducing into the business more hands than the business itself is capable of maintaining; and similar results will follow the adoption of a corresponding policy in other branches of labour. The farmer, by being allowed to employ more than he can afford to maintain, while the rate is looked to both by the employer and the labourer to make up the deficiency, is favouring, to an unnatural degree, the production of the supply of labour, beyond •what is required by the capital which is to employ ii. The half-pay apprentice scheme in the ribbon trade, has inevitably had the effect of reducing wages, and the reduction of wages that of bringing the fathers of families to distress, and to the parish.

Two years ago, a general agreement was entered into by the masters, to pay the journeymen according to a fixed scale of prices; but this agreement was not uniformly adhered to for a single week, and above a year ago they altogether departed from it! Instances, similar to the one referred to in a preceding note, are affirmed to have occurred, in which weavers, defrauded of their fair pay, have in vain applied to the magistrates, who could give them no redress. The following question is put by the Committee.

'Would it in your judgment and belief, be attended with advantage, were the justices in quarter sessions to regulate the prices of labour in the silk trade, in the same way as in London and Dublin ?—I have no doubt of it; and I have been assured also, that that will be the effect, by most of the principal manufacturers in Coventry, provided it could be done as a general measure for the whole of the silk manufacturers through the kingdom.'

One very important remark deserves to be noticed, since it seems to bear immediately upon the fact, that the rise or fall of •wages, is a circumstance having no necessary connexion with the demand for the commodity. In reply to the question, What would be the effect of a regulation of prices by the magistrates, upon the interests of the journeymen, when trade was very slack, the witness, Mr. Peter Gregory, states that he has

'endeavoured to ascertain whether those persons, paying the lowest price in a depressed state of trade, on that account manu

« AnteriorContinuar »