Lately, there’s been plenty of talk about zero-hour contracts. One person called them a return to 19th century exploitation. In case you don’t believe that this has all happened before, then this Leeds testimony, which appeared in 1896 in Pearson’s Magazine, might make you think again:
A girl whom I interviewed at the office of the Wholesale Clothiers’ Operatives Union, told me that she had often spent 10d (4p) out of a weekly earnings of 2s 7d (13p). She remembered one week when she had only earned a shilling (5p) and had had to pay 8d (3 1/2p). She had given up tailoring in despair, as she could not make a living at it. She had been in a ‘punishing house’ and had often been so weak from want of food that she had fainted over her machine. Many of her fellow workers used to beg food from the men in the factory, but she never cared to do this, as it led to things.
Later in the same article:
Masters take advantage of the girls’ want to beat down the prices per piece at this time. “One time, when we were all very hungry,” she said, “the foreman told us there were 400 sailor suits coming up. Would we do them at 3d each? We refused, as the lowest price was 3 1/2d each. The foreman kept us waiting a day and a half, and at last we were so hungry that we gave in.”
“The masters often say,” said another woman, “‘We have so many hundred articles to be sewn, if you like to do them at such a reduced rate.’ We prefer not to be idle, and accept, expecting to have so many to sew. But the masters had lied and there is very much less to sew than had been promised.”
Most touching, though, is this testimony:
A machine girl described her experiences…to me: “I come in at eight a.m. If I’m late I’ll be fined 1d or 2d. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing till half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I may go home. He’ll say, “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without it. At half-past one I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say, ‘Work hasn’t come up yet.’ I have to sit at my machine.”
“Once I fainted from hunger, and asked to be allowed to go homer, but they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining-room. I sit at my machine till three or four. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: ‘The orders don’t seem to be coming in, you can go home till the morning.’ And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till six-thirty, earning wage for the last two or three hours.”
That was Leeds in 1896. Ask around in today’s zero hour contract Britain and you’ll find stories that strongly echo the past.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingam novels, all set in Leeds during the 1730s. The sixth, “Fair and Tender Ladies” will be launched at Unconvention on 28 September.