Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose*

* Some things never change
This should really have been written by the 4th Earl of Dunraven. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 85 in 1926, so he isn’t available. In 1890 the noble Earl was the proposer, and then chair, of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Sweating System. That was 130 years ago and what he was complaining about is absolutely relevant today in Leicester.
Dunraven’s objective was to ameliorate the conditions of the Jews in the Sweat Shops in the East End of London and practically nothing has changed to this day, except the town.  As Dunraven said in his report: “The hours of labour, the rate of remuneration and the  sanitary conditions under which the work was done, were disgraceful….overtime was not counted. Any number of hours, ranging between 12 and 24, were paid for as one day’s work.”
The problem was that there were not enough inspectors to enforce the  law. “The conditions of the Public Health Acts and of the Factory and Workshop Regulation Acts are utterly disregarded and existing systems of inspection are entirely inadequate to enforce their provision.”
As the Archbishop of Canterbury added: “The presence of the inspector in any neighbourhood soon became known; preparations were at once made for his visit; the crowded workers disappeared from the ‘dens’ and when he arrived, the real state of affairs could not be discovered by him.” Furthermore: “If the inspectors went alone, his evidence was unsupported and was contradicted by the evidence of the master and employees and it was impossible to secure a conviction.”
One problem was foreign immigrant workers. Like my Aunt Becky, who made button holes. As Dunraven said: “The number of English workers is gradually being reduced owing to the severity of a competition in which those who can subsist on least are sure to be victorious. The supply of cheap labour has of late years been enormous, and where there was the slightest difficulty in obtaining it at prices offered, there was no difficulty in obtaining more people from abroad.” But then “how could two or three inspectors keep in check the multitude of these sweating dens?….The penalty inflicted in cases of conviction was a great deal too small. The penalty ought to be so great as to make it not worth a man’s while to run the chance of conviction.”
The location of the the Sweat Shops was familiar in 1890. “penned up in small rooms and basements, garrets, backyards, washhouses and all sorts of unlikely places were the abodes of the sweaters.”
Dunraven considered the conditions worse than slavery because at least the slave owner had to feed his slaves.
The Earl of Aberdeen objected to the Learner’s System. Girls were taught the trade without wages for three months, but were then fired instead of being taken on as permanent workers.
The committee  was able to call witnesses under oath and took three years to go into the whole sorry mess. At the end they came up with four reports, but they rejected the one Dunraven favoured and he resigned as chair. In the years that followed very little was done to improve the lot of the workers. There was one exception though; the boot makers in Leicester achieved much better conditions through a strong trade union. What are the unions doing today in Leicester? We need an Ernie Bevin there.
One employer set out to look after his workers and that was Montague Burton, whose Leeds factory fed the workers, provided them with sports grounds and health care and produced 25% of the demobilisation suits at the end of the Second World War. Marks and Spencer were another company which became famed for looking after its workers. Kayser Bondor was another, and if they were all Jewish, we had our own small sweatshops, where my grandfather paid my father so little that he enlisted in the army in 1914 as  a private, to earn more money.
The local authority was pinpointed by Dunraven. “The Local Authority, however, has power under the Public Health Act 1875 to deal with the unsanitary or overcrowded state of workshops as nuisances.” It really is difficult to believe that an outbreak of coronavirus in Leicester in 2020 might well have been prevented if an act passed in 1875 had been properly observed. .
If the government enforces the minimum wage in Leicester sweatshops today, the work will be done in Bangladesh. They could fine the men at the top a fortune and try to convict them of criminal offences. The excuse that nobody knew what was going on would be very likely to be put up as the defence.
I suspect that at the end of the day very little is going to happen in Leicester. I very much hope I’m wrong.
About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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