The Plight of the Cotton workers

Lancashire’s staple industry, the manufacture of cotton goods, has for some years felt the effects of Indian and Japanese competition in markets once their own. Taking 1913 as the pre-war basis, Lancashire’s total post-war production per year, of cotton piece goods, has never reached two-thirds of the pre-war figure. Lancashire has lost, in bulk, one-third of its export trade since 1913. The usual effects of this loss of trade have taken place. Millowners have become bankrupt and mills have been mortgaged to the banks.

Meanwhile the cotton workers have suffered successive decreases in wages, “short time,” and existed mainly on unemployment pay and outdoor relief. A century ago, Lancashire, with its advanced methods of production, could easily compete with other countries that were then backward, socially and economically. Now these countries have advanced into the capitalist economy, and are using modern methods of production, using textile machinery which Lancashire has exported, to compete with Lancashire.

Japan, India and China, by the aid of the low standard of life of the workers and the longer hours of work, are enabling the capitalists of those countries to undersell Lancashire in the marketing of cotton piece goods.

The conditions experienced by the Lancashire workers during the 19th century are now being undergone by the workers of Japan, India and China.

In the Manchester Guardian of November 13th, 1926, appeared the statement that

“The Japanese mills are mostly worked by women and girls, who enlist—’enlist’ is the most appropriate word—for three years, are housed in places like barracks for that period, and have to work ten hours a day —half of them on night shifts—for low wages.”

Even this appears favourable when compared with the conditions at one time endured by the English cotton worker. J. L. & B. Hammond, in their work “The Town Labourer,” p. 22, state

“That the normal working day in Manchester and neighbourhood in 1825 varied from twelve and a half to fourteen hours and mills, like mines, sometimes worked night and day.”

Children of seven and upwards were sent by various parish authorities to work in the mills. Describing the conditions endured by these children the “Hammonds” state (p. 145) that

“Next door to the mills prentice-houses were built, and in these two buildings their young lives were spent, at best in monotonous toil, at worst in a hell of human cruelty. If their masters failed in business their labours ceased and they were cast adrift into the world. A model mill at Styal, near Manchester, employed from seventy to eighty children procured from the Liverpool Workhouse, living in a small prentice-house near the mill. Here, where kindness was the rule, and the children’s education was supervised by members of the owner’s family noted for its benevolence, the working hours were seventy-four a week, or over twelve a day, Saturday included.”

At any rate the cotton masters have nothing to learn from the Asiatic in regard to industrial exploitation. Recently the Master Cotton Spinners’ Association opened negotiations with the operatives on the proposal to lengthen the normal working week of 48 hours to 52¼. The fact that the operatives are working short time, owing to the inability of the employers to sell the commodities that could be produced in a 48-hour week does not appear to bother the reasoning capacity of the cotton masters. The cotton workers are badly organised, and it is doubtful if they can put up much of a struggle against the continual lowering of their standard of life. The workers in the cotton industry have toiled to produce wealth for their masters’ benefit. What in return does the capitalist system offer them? Only worse conditions, if such are possible. The plight of the cotton workers is only an example of the general conditions of the working class in this social system. The Socialist Party of Great Britain claim that the reason the working class are unable to obtain a decent standard of life is that the wealth the workers produce is owned by the employing class.

The capitalists own the means of wealth production, land, factories, machinery, means of transportation, etc., and allow the workers to produce further wealth and give them in return just sufficient of the necessaries of life to keep them alive to produce more wealth. The masters will only allow the workers to use the means of production when they can sell the commodities the workers produce at a profit.

If the capitalist cannot sell these commodities they close the factories. The workers are then unable to sell their working power, and unless they can obtain relief from charity or insurance, they are forced to go without the necessaries of life.

If the working class could obtain access to the means of wealth production, they could produce more than sufficient to keep every member of the community in comfort. The working class by supporting Socialism would obtain control of the political machinery and use it to take the means of wealth production from the present owners. The community would then have the means to give every person the full benefit of the enormous amount of wealth that is produced by modern methods of production.

H. A.

(Socialist Standard, March 1928)

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