“For What We Have Received May the Lord—!”

The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1907 has been, and probably will be, a favourite subject for the lectures of “reforming Socialists,” in order to show the influence of “Socialism” in the measures passed by capitalist Governments.

Not long since one of these gentry was lecturing upon “what Socialism is, and what it is not.” After showing that it is not “spoliation, confiscation, and the dissolution of all social and domesticties,” he proceeded to show what it is by pointing to the “bits” obtained by the moral and intellectual pressure brought to bear upon the Liberals by the “organised, disciplined, and determined Labour Party,” and so on ad nauseum.

These “bits” of Socialism were the Trades Dispute Act, the Old Age Pensions Act, the Compensation Act, etc. The audience were implored to recognise the beneficence of Socialism by recognising the beneficence of these samples (!) of the whole. Needless to say, this position can be absolutely smashed from a Socialist point of view.

On the face of it we must recognise that (1) the Liberal Government had a majority powerful enongh to withstand the pressure that the Labour Party might have brought to bear, (2) that they would not, being a capitalist party, pass any Act likely to benefit the working class, (3) that even if any measure were put upon the Statute Book, ostensibly as a reform, the certainty is that with a little scientific investigation into its nature and experience of its working, the truth would be evident that either it was a political “red herring,” or something really beneficial to the class that passed it.

It is with the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1907, passed by the Liberals, for which the Labour Party claim the credit (save the mark), and which is hailed as a mighty instance of what Socialism is, that this article deals.

Previous to the passing of this Act the law relating to compensation to be paid when workmen were killed or injured, was regulated under two or three Employers’ Liability Acts, all equally obscure in their meaning and limited in their scope.

It is an accepted fact that if any accident occurred and the case for compensation was fought in the courts, the only persons who reaped any benefit were the lawyers. The employers and insurance companies had to pay out costs and compensation if the case was decided against them ; the workman or those acting on his behalf had to pay costs if they lost. The intricate meanings of the law were so obscure that only one thing was certain—the lawyer was always in at the end.

Still it was possible, particularly during the few years previous to the passing of the last Act, for a workman injured, or the relations of one killed during employment, to obtain a sum approaching substantial compensation for loss sustained.

But a change came over the face of affairs ; a change that was hailed as a veritable Godsend to the halt, the lame, and the blind ; to the widow and the fatherless child.

The Labour Party had so impressed the Liberals with their strength that they had passed this Act to satisfy their fierce hunger for reforms, and to stave off that evil time when the wolves of Labour, held in leash by Henderson, MacDonald and Co., would devour the capitalists.

This Act, we were told, was all-embracing, and simplicity itself in its workings, and made it an absolute certainty that the workman would receive compensation for injuries received. This we admit is true. There is no denying the fact that the law practically covers, with but few exceptions, all trades, and the same may be said of injuries and diseases. There is also no necessity for a long fight in the courts, with all its attendant worry and trouble.

On the face of things these appear to be substantial gains, but a closer examination from other standpoints, reveals the fact that even if the capitalists have given a sprat, it is only for the purpose of catching a mackerel.

Let us take in detail the case of each party affected by this Act. There are three—the workman, the employer, the insurance company.

Firstly the workman. Previous to the Act of 1907 the law regulating compensation was a “mystery deep and dark.” So intricate, so contradictory, were its clauses, that it generally involved both parties in a fierce contest at law, and the result was, of course, dependent upon the sharp practice of the opposing counsels. The party that could afford the sharpest generally won. Yet the workmen often obtained substantial damages,—damages sufficient to cover the loss sustained. At present, the law being simplified, the necessity for fighting is practically abolished. The workman who is injured can obtain compensation in the form of half-wages, and if the injury extends beyond six months the employer can pay out a lump sum of an amount that will bring in 75 per cent. of the half wages, and so clear his liability.

This is the maximum : the day of real compensation is gone. There is no need to fight now. Out of the generosity of his heart the capitalist gives half wages—half of what, in the majority of cases, is merely a bare, subsistance.

In the event of a clear case of wilful negligence on the employer’s part, the workman may still sue under the old law, and supposing he gains the day, even, the half wages is the maximum compensation he will obtain.

The net gain to the worker is the almost certain compensation (so far as it goes) with no trouble to obtain it by fighting in the courts. On the other hand, the amount is never in any case above half wages.

Secondly, the employer. In the old days the employer was not under the same necessity to insure, owing to the many avenues open to escape from compensation. To-day it is necessary for him to insure in almost every case. The cost of this is comparatively small, and having “hedged” the risk, the employer becomes absolutely carefree as regards accidents to his employees. He knows that in the event of such the insurance company will pay out the compensation, and it matters little to him whether the amount be large or small. The result is he is more able to “speed up” production, regardless of life or limb, for his financial responsibility ceases when his insurance is paid.

From the employer’s point of view, then, although he is under the necessity of insuring more, he is able to reap a greater return, by the abolition of the responsibility of working his employees under conditions dangerous to life and limb.

Thirdly, the insurance companies. Under the old law the number of policies was infinitely smaller than at present, owing to the wider scope of the last Act. This is one substantial gain. Then the struggles in the courts involved a tremendous outlay of money by the companies. To-day the necessity of fighting claims is practically abolished, and the resulting economy is another substantial gain. Further, although the number of claims paid is, and will be, greater, yet the amount of compensation fixed by law is so small that companies will save a large amount of money in this direction also. From the point of view of the insurance companies this Act has come as a boon and a blessing—they stand to win, anyway.

To take the three positions, then, we find the insurance companies gain all along the line. In fact one might say the Act was passed by the companies for the companies. The slight loss to the employer in one direction is much more then counterbalanced by his gains in another. He is able to rid himself of all liability by the payment of a small sum, for the accidents resulting from the progressive “speeding up” made more and more necessary by the increasing competition in the industrial world to-day.

The workman gains the certainty of compensation, although in much reduced amount. But he also “gains” the considerably greater likelihood of injury or death, as the result of the increase of “hustling” methods. The Act has seriously diminished his opportunities of earning his daily bread in the day when his energies flag, his sight fails, his hair whitens. It is a fact that on every hand this Act, has been answerable for the discharge of men who are rendered “unfit” by the new conditions imposed. In the mine and factory, on the railway, the building, and even on the sea, the difficulty of obtaining employment by those who are in any way handicapped physically, is getting greater day by day. The insurance companies can, and probably do, bring pressure to bear upon employers of labour so that they are forced to refuse work to those who are most likely to meet with accidents.

To sum up the whole matter, this Act was passed by the Liberal Government to serve the insurance companies, the employers of labour, and, beyond all, to delude the workers, through their so-called leaders, into the belief that they had given them a great and glorious dispensation that would help them in life’s bitter struggle.

Yet this thing, this delusion, this snare, is pointed out by the reform-mongering crew as one of the “bits” of Socialism. One might almost paraphrase Madame Roland and say, “O Socialism, what frauds are perpetrated in thy name !”

The members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, schooled as they are in the principles of class-conscious, revolutionary Socialism, will always, fortunately, be able to open out and lay bare to the eyes of the workers these fraudulent reforms—born of the craft of the Liberal capitalists and the ignorance and knavery of their henchmen, the labour leaders. There is one thing certain—the workers will inevitably be forced, by bitter experience if by no other means, to recognise that their only hope lies in a revolutionary Socialist Party such as the S.P.G.B.


Leave a Reply