1920s >> 1921 >> no-198-february-1921

Rural Poverty. The Situation Reviewed

Just Ask for What You Want.
Under the heading : “How to Overcome Poverty in Rural Districts,” the Daily Herald for Saturday, the 18th December, reports a meeting of a Trades Council at Halesworth in Suffolk, at which agricultural workers’ representatives supported a resolution requesting an immediate increase in wages. The reason for this request is clear enough. The agricultural workers of Halesworth find that the cost of living continues to increase, and it becomes more and more difficult to live on the wages they get; they therefore ask that the Agricultural Wages Board, a body set up under the Corn Production Act, shall order an increase of the minimum wage at present applicable in Suffolk. So far so good, but the supporters of the resolution do not explain why they expect the Board to order this increase, nor what they propose to do should they refuse. Apparently no explanation is considered necessary.
It might be said that the Corn Production Act was intended to “secure for able bodied men wages which, in the opinion of the Board, are adequate to promote efficiency, and to enable any man in an ordinary case to maintain himself and his family in accordance with such a standard of comfort as may be reasonable in relation to the nature of his occupation.”
Who are to Decide the Standard ?
That is true, but it is as well to remember that the problem of deciding what is a decent standard was not to be left to the workers themselves to decide. It will be useful here to consider the conditions which necessitated the Corn Production Act, and the motives of its promoters, and to return later to the particular problem of the Suffolk workers.
The capitalist or employing class lives by exploiting the workers ; this means that out of
the whole product of their labour the workers receive only a part, and not a large part. Speaking generally, they get sufficient to enable them to work and to bring children into the world who will carry on when they are worn out—just like horses, with the one great difference that a horse costs money and must be fed and tended even when temporarily not required to work, while men cost nothing and can be stood off when work is slack, because their employer is under no obligation to keep them, and knows that they can be replaced at any time. In any industry, therefore, the employers are primarily interested in the exploitation of their own employees. Their interests are served by having production as high, and wages as low, as possible, even to the extent of injuring the health of the workers. An individual employer does not have to consider the health and fitness of future generations, and in consequence physical deterioration has been the lot of the workers in every land under the present system of society.
The Bespoilers MUST Protect Against Themselves.
However, the more far-sighted capitalists and their advisers realise the necessity of protecting the more helpless workers against a too ruthless exploitation, in order to safeguard the future of the race and in particular so that they can effectively resist the attacks of other countries in time of war.
The rivalry which exists between national groups of capitalists occasionally becomes so acute as to lead to open war. The workers are then called upon to defend the interests of their masters, and if it is desirable to have efficient factory hands it is doubly so to have alert, fit, and capable soldiers to stand the strain of modern warfare. It is,for these reasons that Factory Acts and the statutory limitation of hours and other restrictive measures are introduced, often in face of the bitter opposition of sections of employers who will suffer immediate loss, or who fail to appreciate the need for them. The minimum wage clause of the Corn Production Act was intended to give the agricultural labourer the same amount of protection as had already been granted to town workers.
Why the Act was passed.
The Act itself owed its origin to the famine that threatened the Allies, and this country in particular, in the early years of the war. An acute shortage of shipping, aggravated by the haphazard attacks of the German raiders, and later by the sustained submarine war, had been required to teach our rulers that a larger proportion of our food supply could and must be produced at home. They decided that farmers had to be induced to plough up grass land and in this and other ways to increase considerably their corn acreage, and as corn-growing had been declining for many years owing to the cheapness of imported corn, the inducement took the form of guaranteeing prices at a high level for a number of years. It was, of course, out of the question to compel farmers to assist in smashing Germany without reward ; that was reserved for mere property less workers.
Capitalists “Getting Wise.”
The experiences of war had taught our militarists and the Government’s agricultural advisers one or two other things as well. The medical examinations had revealed a startlingly low level of fitness among rural workers. Little and poor food, bad housing, and heavy work at too early an age, had had a disastrous effect on a once virile country population. What could not be done for the workers’ own benefit had to be done in a hurry when it was a question of “food for the guns” in our masters’ war.
Besides this the more wide awake of the agriculturists had made another discovery : that it does not pay to employ unhealthy and undersized workers. Experiments in Hampshire showed that the agricultural workers had sunk to so low a level there that higher wages and piece rates would not lead to greater production. Generations of under-feeding and bad housing had robbed labourers of the Southern counties of the vitality required to enable them to respond to these forms of inducement so successful elsewhere.
Just think how distressed Thomas and Clynes and other pro-capitalist Labour leaders must have felt at the idea of workers who couldn’t increase their output and their employers’ profits !
So it was done! The Corn Production Act says that the agricultural worker must have a decent standard of life.
What was meant, of course, was that just enough should be given to make it possible to get more profits and better soldiers. Poor Sir Frederick Banbury, gallant old Tory that he is, had a horrible nightmare when he thought this innovation might give the land workers leisure to think, and to be extravagant. “What is necessary,” he declared, “is that you should have your labourers content with their position and have their minds intent upon their work,” and “I know for a fact . . . there were men doing casual work who earned from their point of view quite enough in four days to enable them to do nothing for the remaining two days.”
No Need for Uneasiness.
But he need not have worried. The minimum fixed upon was 25s , which has since been increased with rising prices to 46s !
The Government were soon satisfied that sufficient had been done to meet future military requirements. When Lloyd George, with the assistance of some millions of soldiers, and at the cost of a million workers’ lives, had won the war, they recovered from their first panic. They were also satisfied that the agricultural unions, whose rapid growth they had foreseen and desired, could be trusted to see that at least the most hideous features of rural degradation were to some extent removed. As a matter of fact agricultural wages have increased by a greater percentage than those in most industries since pre-war days.
Now that the object of the Act has been considered there comes the question of the working of the machinery it set up to deal with wages. There is in every county a committee composed of equal numbers of representatives of farmers and workers together with some neutral members. These committees are advisory only, and a central board sitting in London alone has the power to make orders, against the wishes of the district committees if necessary.
The Real Object of the Scheme.
These Halesworth workers, like many others, appear to think that their representatives merely have to ask for an increase and explain the justice of their case to get what they want. They think it is just a question of the disposal of votes that settles the amount that shall be paid. The farmers’ representatives will be expected to oppose any application just out of cussedness, but if the neutrals do so too it will be ascribed to their anti-labour bias. Both farmers and labourers frequently ask for the removal of some or all of these neutral members. That is because they both fail to understand the idea underlying Trade Boards and Arbitration Courts so much in evidence in recent years. Their real object is to prevent stoppage of work and generally to remove friction and promote the smooth running of the wheels of industry. It is true the method hasn’t always been a success either here or in America, or in Australia or other countries where it has been extensively used. That, however, can be put down to some extent to the indiscreet way some Governments have introduced it. It has been so far successful that there is no likelihood of its being abandoned.
What Does Matter.
The workers suffer when they strike, but this doesn’t matter in the least to their employers if it were not for the fact that the latter suffer too. The employers have the State behind them and all the chances are in their favour, but even if they were certain of victory they would still prefer a less expensive way of settling disputes. A stoppage of work means no profits, idle machinery, unfulfilled contracts, and the loss of markets to home and foreign competitors.
The ability of the workers at any given time to get a larger share of what they produce depends, not upon the eloquence of their representatives, but on their powers to demand it. A whole intellectual armoury of moral arguments will fail to convince an employer of the justice of a claim if the labour market is overcrowded. If he knows that there are a dozen men willing to take the place of each of his employees for the same or less wages, he will also know that he can reduce wages with impunity. Well organised workers will take advantage of every favourable opportunity to get higher wages, and will fight to prevent any reduction. These are the occasions when strikes are likely to occur, and Arbitration Boards and similar bodies aim at eliminating that risk.
A Useful Function.
In agriculture the District Wages Committees serve to gather information about the strength of feeling on any particular question. The representatives of farmers and labourers themselves are in a position to know what action their members will be prepared to take. When one side makes a demand on the Central Board it will almost certainly be opposed by the other. The neutral members, under the skilful guidance of the independent chairman, and acting oil reports from the District Committees, will then endeavour to effect a compromise. They must decide on a figure sufficiently high to take the backbone out of the discontent of the workers, and sufficiently low to be accepted under protest by the employers. Both sides then report their “victory” to those they represent, and everything goes more or less smoothly until further increase in prices produces more discontent.
A Bad Outlook.
Just now there is commercial stagnation everywhere. Expectations of the break in prices which, was, according to the Daily Herald, to be the beginning of the new world for the workers, and rumours on every hand of impending bankruptcies, are adding thousands to the already immense army of unemployed. Seasonal unemployment, which meant the standing off of older men and boys at this time of the year, has been a constant feature of rural life, but this has now been aggravated by the competition of unemployed town workers, many of whom, of course, will only recently have left the land for better paid factory jobs.
The Nett Result.
The net result is that agricultural workers are not now in a position to demand more money, and the land workers at Halesworth, like those in almost every country, like the workers in every industry, must remain discontented. The most closely organised and highly skilled trades will fight hard, but their success can only be moderate indeed. In the capitalist system repeated unemployment and continual poverty and insecurity are the lot of the workers, and no sectional struggles against its effects can be of lasting benefit while the mass of them support the system through their failure to understand their position in it.
The immediate task of the workers is to study the structure and origin of capitalism, and to learn that there are no short cuts to emancipation ; that the solution of the problem of poverty in every industry and in every continent is the same—the abolition of the system of society which requires that the great majority shall be poor in order that a favoured few may live idle and luxurious lives.

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