I’m currently involved in an investigation into the zero hours ’employment contracts’ being operated by several British, household-name firms. Zero hours contracts are controversial in 21st century Britain as they are viewed by many (myself included) as exploitative. Such employment arrangements are commonplace for millions of impoverished workers around the world today – though that doesn’t make it right – and they are as nothing compared to what used to happen in Britain just over a hundred years ago. Business-minded pragmatists argue that zero hours contracts facilitate the provision of paid work in instances where otherwise there would be none; I accept this logic as harsh reality in those limited circumstances and cases where the employer – perhaps struggling, or perhaps a start-up – is genuinely not seeking to exploit staff, but, in the UK today, many zero hours employees are working for firms making huge profits – firms which could easily afford to give better terms of employment. Many highly profitable British firms exploit zero hours simply because they can, the only motive being naked greed on the part of business owners. The firms which exploit zero hours correlate quite well with the firms which have come to view the National Minimum Wage as the maximum wage – not because these firms can’t afford to pay better wages but because they don’t have to, and again, the only motive for this is greed.
It’s my hope that the work I’m doing on zero hours will help towards efforts to improve the lot of many thousands of British workers for the future (though I do think the ‘elephant in the room’ is Britain’s participation in the EU, which means unscrupulous employers can force British workers to accept zero hours or nothing, as there is a plentiful supply of EU labour willing to migrate to Britain for work on worse employment terms than the erstwhile standards to which the late 20th century British mindset is accustomed).
Let’s hope and strive for better employment conditions in the future; as to the past, things aren’t as bad as back in the bad old days just yet. It’s a hard knock life for many British people today – try earning a full-time income from freelance journalism if you want tough – but it ain’t hard like working down a 19th century Cornish tin mine.
Throughout the Victorian era the mines of Cornwall supplied almost half the global demand for tin. In the 19th century the miners’ working year was split into one or two month stints, and after each stint there was no guarantee either of payment or further work. Every stint began with ‘setting day’ when miners would present themselves outside the mine’s count house (office). The mine captain (foreman/overseer/manager) or an agent of the mine owner then proceeded to conduct a kind of auction in which the work for the next stint went to the lowest bidders!
The captain would first set out what work was required in the next stint. Broadly speaking, there were two aspects to the work; there was the work of developing the mine (‘tutwork’), which was paid on a piecework basis for rock removed, and there was the work of mining the tin ore itself, for which the miners were paid by a percentage ‘tribute’ of the ore’s value. The captain would then address the miners who had worked the previous stint, confirming that they had completed the work to which they had been assigned and confirming the miners’ payment. The captain would ask these miners if they were willing to work the next stint on the same terms and pay, and then asked if anyone present was willing to work for less! Setting Day was often attended not only by the miners of the last stint but also by others in search of work, and so the mine captain would often proceed to auction off the next stint’s work contracts to the lowest bidders – to those miners prepared to accept a lower wage.
At the end of a stint, miners were charged by the mine owner for everything they used in doing the work, including candles, tools, fuses and explosives (gunpowder before the 1860s, and later, Nobel’s new nitroglycerine explosives). And that wasn’t all: the miners were even charged for the cost to the owner of hauling waste rock out of the mine! At best a miner’s income from any stint was uncertain; at worst, if the stint did not go well, he lived with the real risk of finishing a stint in debt to the mine owner.
As to the working environment, it was dusty and dark, dirty and dangerous. Sometimes it stank from foul fumes given off in explosions in unventilated pitches. The only light came from tallow candles. It was not uncommon for miners to have to walk several miles from home to the mine, then to descend over a thousand feet of wooden ladders, followed by a further lengthy walk through the mine, just to arrive at the actual site of work each day. Shifts typically lasted for eight hours, after which there was still the arduous journey to get out of the mine and back home again. Lung diseases were common and accidents frequent in what was a hard life of manual labour the like of which most of us can scarcely imagine.
Perhaps the only thing the 19th century Cornish miners had better than today’s zero-hours, minimum-wage workers was a Sabbath day of rest every week. Do you get Sundays off? If you’re one of the many now expected to work seven days a week, don’t be surprised if you feel permanently exhausted. Whilst the level of wages is a battle that will never end, would not heavy legal restrictions on zero hours contracts and the restoration of Sundays off be to the benefit of millions of British workers, and without harm to the economy?
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and tagged British Workers
, Day of Rest
, Day Off
, Minimum Wage
, Richard Carvath
, Wage Auction
, Working Conditions
, Zero Hours
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