The White Slaves of Insurance

“In the next few years we shall rescue, I hope, hundreds of thousands of poor people who are gradually sinking to the tomb in this terrible quicksand—that is what the Insurance Act is to do.”

These words were spoken by the Liberal evangelist to the toilers of Aberdeen last November, and, with slight variations, are being repeated in the bye-elections now pending. The aim is to obtain. the votes of working men by recalling “the great benefits” granted by the party in power.

The reality, however, is far different. Instead of preventing sickness and driving want and the fear of want into oblivion, it simply results in fixing those things more firmly upon the toilers.

Look at the “evils” that are to be remedied ; carefully ponder the deepening distress, the anxiety and fear associated with the struggle to obtain enough of the necessaries of life—and then examine the “remedy.” The cure, boomed by men of power and ability, widely advertised amongst the needy and obtaining their suffrages—that cure should, at least, be above suspicion ; it should contain within itself none of those elements or evils it sets out to abolish.

What, however, are the facts ? The Insurance Act was framed by social reformers as a new and better agency, far removed from the sordid and cruel Poor Law, both in its administration and its provisions, to stop the hardships caused by the profit-inspired system that rules social life in our time.

One proviso should make that specially obvious. Introducing the Insurance Bill, Mr. Lloyd George laid stress upon the clause stating that no organisation whose object was profit could become an “approved society.” Then, however, the vested interests that permeate both political parties in the present, were aroused. One vigorous supporter of the Liberal Party, the Member for Featherstone, Mr. Handel Booth, was greatly excited. He forwarded an amendment permitting the industrial insurance companies, such as the Prudential, whose sine qua non is profit, to come inside the scheme. It was, of course, a mere co-incidence that this gentleman was a director or shareholder in more than one company. It was of no concern that leading members of the Liberal party had large investments in profit making companies. When the Insurance Bill, thus amended, was passed, the erstwhile critics became enthusiastic exponents of the Act, and worked themselves almost into a frenzy defending the measure so near and dear to their—pockets.

The introduction of the great companies for the purpose of working the Act had a vast effect upon the scheme. It brought the “death-hunters” right into the homes of the people. The distributing and collecting of insurance cards and books gave the agents “open Sesame” to dwellings formerly barred against them, and whilst negotiating State Insurance business they could easily, “don’t you know,” suggest “a penny on the baby.” Thus a great increase in the number of life policies was witnessed, much to the joy of the life-gambling trusts.

To show the immediate effect of the Act upon employees is, however, the main object of this article. The Labour Exchanges and other slave marts were flooded with applications for clerks to distribute this “rare and refreshing fruit” to the victims of modern society. In recruiting their staffs the companies showed that the so-called cure for the social evil was, if anything, worse than the disease. One might imagine that those “angels of mercy” engaged in administering benefits were themselves free from the hardships they were employed to remedy. The truth is that all the troubles that the Insurance Act set out to cure are suffered by the very instruments used to deal with them.

Take away the Trade Unions and Friendly Societies that are working the scheme—some of them presently to find themselves insolvent—and you are left with two groups of Industrial Assurance Companies which every day are encroaching upon the preserves of the small societies. One group is the series of societies formed by the Prudential Assurance Company, which mainly carries on its “approved” business with the aid of girl labour ; the other is a formidable trust or combine comprising the chief life assurance companies operating in the crowded industrial centres of Great Britain.

This body is styled the National Amalgamated Approved Society, and ia made up of the Albion, the Brittanic, the British Legal, the City Life, the Hearts of Oak, the London and Manchester, the Pearl, the Pioneer Life, the Refuge, and the Royal London—and others still are rolling in.

Most of these concerns have had a vast and fruitful experience in regimenting and exploiting labour, and the knowledge gained of this experience is used with fine effect in the work of “preventing and curing sickness,” and so on.

This body of exploiters, with members running into millions, employs at its chief office about 1,200 clerks. Forty per cent. of these are girls, and the others are mostly boys and “mankind in the making.” Recruited to tend their suffering fellows, they form a study in bitter irony. The mass of them engaged after some journeying in the wilderness of unemployment, they are weakly in health and needy in pocket. Brought into the establishment very often by rosy pictures of the Jacob’s ladder up which they may all climb to affluence and power, they have a slow but painful awakening—slow because the mass of them are stolid and unreasoning beings, products of the masterly mal-education with which our governors dose our class. With scarce a thought beyond football and skirt hunting, many of them provide splendid material for a beaten and docile race of wage-slaves.

A little while since conditions became so unbearable to some that a meeting was held under the auspices of that very respectable body, the National Union of Clerks. They met, as was apposite, hard by St. Pancras Workhouse, and an insight into the working conditions may be gleaned from the organ of the union, “The Clerk” which said :

“The mass of the clerks suffer from low wages, the average, taking it right through the 1,100 then employed, was not more than £l per week.
“One of the revelations made there was that in a basement about twelve feet high, where artificial light is necessary all day, there are cabinets standing five feet high, tables stand on top of the cabinets, and clerks work at the tables.”
“Just recently seven clerks, one of whom had previously asked five times for an increase without result, felt that their conditions were intolerable, and asked for increases in salary. To add insult to injury they were requested to resign or apologise for their impertinence in asking for an increase. In a moment of weakness they apologised, understanding that the matter would end there. Then another insult was offered them and five of them preferred to resign rather than suffer more. The best paid of them, aged 22 years, was in receipt of 21s. per week. The worst paid, aged 17 years, was in receipt of 12s. for such responsible work as conducting correspondence (i.e., dictating letters to typists without supervision).”

The ruck of the girls get from 12s. to 14s. per week, and many of them bear obvious signs of the hard lives and constant struggle that the Insurance Act was to drive away. The awful tragedy of toil is borne home to you as you watch the consumption-cursed girl working on the insurance cards issued under “the Charter of the Consumptive”—the cynical, contemptible fraud !

Sometimes a girl may go away and be tended at home or in a hospital or sanitorium (most of the consumptive treatment under the Act is given at home) ; but in a short time she returns to try and keep the “wolf from the door,” and the disease goes galloping on.

Frequently the long hours with compulsory overtime enforced by the seven-o’clock-dinner directors, cause fainting fits and break-downs. Living in the suburbs, most of them snatch a “coffee and cake” lunch and a hurried “tea,” and upon this slender diet they work from 9 in the morning till 8 or 9 at night. The meals are hurried because the exploiters are very particular about time. In this establishment no margin whatever is allowed. Sharp at 9 o’clock in the morning the gates clang, and the same throughout the day. In this respect it is worse than, a factory.

The young men and women must, of course, dress “respectably,” and this eats up a great portion of their wages. Speeding up is reduced to a fine art, and the amount of work expected to be done steadily increases. The directors are ever busy developing schemes to increase the efficiency of the staff as profit-making machines.

But like most capitalists, they are too grossly greedy even to make a success in this respect. So badly are most of the clerks paid that usually one finds them showing more interest in some petty “side line” of their own than in their “work.” One may find them defying regulations under pressure of poverty, by selling sweetmeats, cigarettes, and postcards in order to supplement their paltry wage. Actually but little interest is displayed, and largely on account of the nature of the work. Handling and entering insurance cards coming, maybe, from some poor consumptive—of whom there are nearly half a million insured—and laden with disease, this work inspires no enthusiasm.

When we consider the potency of so many human beings, and then watch them wasting their lives in such bitter, useless service, feeding the fires of misery and poverty ; when we appreciate the fact that the sum total of human squalor and misery marches steadily on despite the sisyphean labour of these poor hirelings : then we need never be surprised to learn the hum-drum nature of the toil to its victims.

So far as they are able the insurance magnates do their best to reduce expenses—and so worsen conditions. Of late a campaign has been waged—now nearing victory—to introduce the six months card instead of the quarterly one. Thus they hope to cut down by nearly a half the work and the workers. Instead of entering, checking, and registering cards every quarter, it need only be done twice a year. Competition for jobs, reinforced by the dismissed victims of economical working, will be keener, and thus worse, not better, conditions are the promise of the future.

Often the threat is made that unless the males work harder they will be supplanted by girls-unsavoury though much of the work undoubtedly is.

The Trade Union advises industrial organisa¬tion, and strikes are rumoured continually, but cessation of work will not emancipate the clerk in these establishments any more than it will the workers elsewhere. The workers need education in their status as a class, the cause of their conditions and the remedy, far more than any impulsive striking, with the inevitable return to work under worsened conditions for those not actually victimised. The materials for their enlightenment are all around them, and it but needs the removal of the false notions of the schools and seminaries to prepare them as missionaries of the coming social and industrial change.

The tragedy of the present social system can be grasped very easily by the State Insurance clerk. The mountains of empty cards registering the horrors of unemployment, the vast number pf cards stamped to indicate that the owners get less than 2s. per day, the pitiful efforts often made by the hunted outcasts of this modern Babylon to pay up arrears in order to obtain the so-called benefits, the letters sealed with tears and proclaiming the writers’ need for help and communicating their sufferings—all these must have an accumulated effect in dispelling the dreams of youth and the illusions of maturity, in other words, in making the clerks amenable to Socialist education.

That there is a terrible need for social transformation is shown upon every hand. Our masters, clever as they are in ways that are dark, are outpaced by their own system. They claimed to be able to measure by their actuarial tables the amount of sickness amongst the working class. But they now sorrowfully admit that they were mistaken, for the sickness claims put all their compilations in the shade. There is far more sickness and disease amongst the toilers than they dreamt of, and they are now engaged in devising ways and means of checking expenses, not of lessening disease.

The companies, by means of secret dossiers, are asking their superintendents to send in the names of reliable doctors (reliable for the companies) not on the panel who will act as medical referee or examiners for the companies. Then by means of bullying and browbeating in the manner of legal prize-fighters toward the unlettered, they will get the suffering claimants for sickness benefits to “declare off” the funds. What more need be said for this scheme than that it has received the benediction of Sir John Collie, knighted by the Liberal Government for his detective work for the L.C.C. and the insurance companies in connection with the Workmen’s Compensation Act ? The anxiety to brand the workman as a malingerer has even led the insurance trust referred to to appoint sick visitors to watch members of the staff on the sick list. All this is of a part with their work in practising espionage upon their employees while at work, by means of detectives on point duty at the desk, to see that the driven slaves of the pen look neither to the right nor to the left, but steadily and speedily calculate “ninepence for fourpence” !

In this article little has been said regarding the effect of Health and Unemployment Insurance upon the insured persons ; but that will form the subject of a future article by


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