1920s >> 1923 >> no-228-august-1923

Blind Alleys

At a conference recently held by the Y.M.C.A. the question of blind alley occupations for boys was discussed. Some interesting figures were published by the Daily Chronicle, which also stated in a leading article that the evil was due to the selfishness of parents and the desire of low-grade employers for cheap labour. The very fact that the majority of workers employed are doing work that requires little skill, while there is a large percentage of unemployed in nearly every skilled trade, proves this statement to be a lie.

Capitalists, low grade or high grade, do not pay skilled workers wages for so-called unskilled work. The jobs that capitalists want filled are mainly low-skilled jobs with low pay. Modern industry is carried on with a relatively small number of skilled workers and a huge majority of low-skilled.

A high proportion of skilled workers is not required with machine production, and the bulk of the wealth in any capitalist country is produced by machinery tended by men, women, boys and girls, who can often learn their tasks in a few days, or even hours.

Under any system of society the production and distribution of wealth must require workers of varying degrees of skill; but it is only under capitalism that each particular kind and degree of skilled labour-power is catalogued and priced. Under capitalism labour-power is a commodity. The strength or ability to perform a particular kind of labour has a price recognised by worker and capitalist, just as the value of a cabinet is recognised by seller and buyer because of the workmanship and materials used in its construction. But just as everybody would admit that it would be foolish for capitalists to expend capital in the production of cabinets that were not wanted, so it must be apparent that parents who trained their boys as cabinet makers when the trade was already overcrowded would be equally foolish.

What shall we do with our boys? is a question always being asked. Every skilled trade is already overcrowded, though occasionally for short periods a particular trade, through an unforeseen rise in the demand for its goods, may have only a small percentage of its members unemployed.

In any case the proportion of workers relatively high skilled to lower skilled is determined, not by the workers, but by the kind of industrial products in demand and the tools and methods employed in their production. Machinery and scientific discovery eliminate skill and enable the capitalist to avail himself of the lower skilled and cheaper workers, such as women and boys.

To the boys thus employed their daily work is, for them, so many hours of imprisonment that merely tires, and leaves them with no desire for healthy recreation or study.

To pretend, as the Daily Chronicle does, that the manufacture of low-skilled and casual workers is due to the selfishness of parents, is sheer hypocrisy. No parent can create jobs for his boys. The majority of workers are themselves low-skilled or casual and on or below the poverty line. They have little or no choice in the matter.. The majority of boys are compelled to take the first job that offers; compelled to do so because capitalist industry offers nothing better.

Both the Y.M.C.A. and the Daily Chronicle also claim that capitalists in “the lower grades of industry” are largely responsible for the evil, but there is scarcely an industry that does not employ a greater proportion of low-skilled than high-skilled workers; while in many industries highly-skilled workers are paid lower wages than the so-called unskilled of other industries, simply because they are in excess of the demand and not organised to resist encroachments by the masters. There is little difference in capitalists. The small parasite may be more hungry for profits, but the limited company and the large scale concern are better organised and equipped for the purpose of exploitation.

Under capitalism the machinery of production is owned by the capitalist, and the energy of the worker is bought to operate it at a price which enables him to live. The machine condemns him to a life of toil in which there is no hope of intelligent interest or development. But when the worker realises the value of the machine as something which will give him more freedom from the nature-imposed necessity to work, he will no longer complain of the dreariness of his task. With full control of all the material factors in the production of wealth the workers can produce according to their needs. With modern machinery and methods, each performing his share in the necessary labour, the major portion of the life of every human being can be spent according to his own ideas of happiness or development.

F. Foan