1940s >> 1943 >> no-462-february-1943

An Irish Problem in English Agriculture

The need for food in war time is one of the State’s greatest problems.

To feed a great hungering populace is vital to the war effort, and every conceivable method is put forth to produce the necessities of life at home. Since the advent of the war agriculture has come into its own, so to speak. Farmers have stepped from lean years to fat ones; with guaranteed prices and markets and modern machinery thrust into the industry, the British farmer now finds himself sitting pretty.

Changes have also been effected with our agricultural labourer. From his wage of about 35/- per week before the war, he now finds himself receiving a £3 minimum rate in all counties. Indeed, many labourers now come under income tax schedules for the first time in their lives, and most of them think themselves well off. Actually, of course, our farm hand is still living on a meagre subsistence level. True, his rent has remained at the same figure. Some time back a move was put forward by many big farmers to increase labourers’ rents to coincide with increased wages, but the motion was shelved for the time being, and it was agreed to leave rents at the fixed rate, usually of 3/- per week.

Many of these cottages the average townsfolk would hardly accept rent free. Small hovels built in out of the way fens, several miles from shopping centres, no modern conveniences, bad sanitation, some of them not even built near a hard road, and often in need of repairs.

Of course, the farmer has his excuse just now, what with war-time restrictions, labour shortage, lack of materials, repairs are out of the question.

All these things, we are told, will be righted in that rosy period to come after the bullets have ceased to whistle.

Some of the labourers live rent free on these farms. For this little privilege a few head of cattle are kept around the place, which need to be taken care of and fed in return. This is called garthing, and, of course, entails Sunday work, so incidentally these farm hands are tied to the farm seven days a week.

But somehow our agricultural labourer is not entirely satisfied. Just now he is concerned in a little trouble known as the Irish problem. Owing to the increased production and cultivation of wide tracts To-day, what worries the land worker is the Irish problem. With the labour shortage the Government has allowed an influx of Irish labour into the country. It is a joint agreement of the two Governments concerned, and any Irishman who desires agricultural work can obtain a permit to come to England for six months. Work is guaranteed, and comparatively attractive piece rates are offered; often the English farmer will give a small gang of Irishmen one of those cottages rent free; incidentally no garthing is required. These Irishmen, for working long hours at piece rates, can earn much more than the English land worker’s £3 a week, and some of the latter resent the employment of the Irish labourers. It also sets them wondering. Often at one end of a field two Irishmen are earthing a clamp of potatoes at 7/- a chain, while at the other end two English hands are doing similar work for 10/- a day.

Incidents like this have caused a growing antagonism between our English farm hand and his Irish brethren. When Saturday night comes our landworker wends his way to the village “pub,”and there he sees an Irish lad laying down his £1 note on the bar counter. That is when the canker grows. Quite heedless of the fact that well known brewers, Messrs. Ind, Coope & Allsop, recently paid a dividend of 33 per cent., the average farm hand likes his pint or two, even if it does cost 1/- or more a pint; and he finds it hard to the pocket to keep pace with his Irish colleague.

Because his wage-packet is small he blames the Irishman. He says, “The Paddies get all the piece work, they pick and choose what work they want; I get all the dirty jobs for a weekly wage. If he’s not satisfied he cashes in; I’m tied till Michaelmass; besides, the guv’nor might stop me leaving or get me put in the army.” And so the talk goes on.

In actual truth, the Irishman is being blamed for the Englishman’s own shortcomings. It is not the Irishman’s fault that English farmers pay less to English labourers. It is not the Irishman’s fault that English labourers have always been miserably paid, nor is it his fault that it is only in war-time that English capitalism discovers that it greatly needs farm workers. In peace time English farmers took advantage of unemployment and the lack of organisation of farm workers to depress wages to the lowest possible level. He opposed every effort of the landworker and his union to improve wages. If, then, in war time Irish labourers are able to exact a higher wage why blame them? The English workers (and their Irish brothers) should recognise that at all times they are sufferers from the same evil, the capitalist system which divides society into a class of capitalists and a class of workers. Only then will English and Irish cease to curse each other.

G. D. Bailey.