Editorial: The “High Wage” Myth (1961)

Every half-year the newspapers publish Ministry of Labour figures of the average earnings of manual workers, and the figures always excite, angry letters from readers who don’t believe that the average is now over £14 a week.

The latest inquiry related to April, 1960, and it showed that the average weekly earnings were £14 2s. 1d. for men; £6 3s. Id. for youths and boys; £7 5s. for women of 18 and over; and £4 13s. 1d. for girls under 18.

For men the £14 2s. 1d. was for a working week of 48 hours, that is to say, it included pay for six or more hours’ overtime; also for night work and Sunday work, and all kinds of bonus additions to ordinary pay. It was before any deductions had been made.

Being an average it included some industrial groups with earnings far above the average and some far below it. The top section was the motor vehicle group with £17 10s. 3d. a week, and the lowest, central and local government. £10 15s. 6d. a week. If the motor vehicle inquiry had been made in November, with something approaching 100,000 on short-time, the figure would have been far below £17 10s.

In any event it should not be thought that the £14 a week wage is an average for all the 14 million men employed in all industries. It is in fact based on fewer than five million men employed in manufacture and some non-manufacturing industries, but it does not include agriculture, coal, railways or the distributive and catering-trades. (Nor does it include non-manual workers.)

If all the industries were included the average would be brought down quite a lot.

Many workers, including craftsmen, earn only their standard weekly rates or not much more, and, as the Royal Commission on the Police showed in its recent Report, the general level of skilled rates is nothing like £14. They obtained 34 craftsmen’s rates from the Ministry of Labour (as at November 1. I960) and found that the average for the 34 rates is only £10 8s. 3d. a week.

And the distributive trades are even worse off. The Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers is campaigning for higher pay and shorter hours for shop assistants and that Union is responsible for the statement that “one and a half million shop workers in Britain are only entitled to a wage of well below £10 a week for 46 or more hours’ work ” (Reynolds News, 4/12/60).

Reynolds News is the Cooperative Sunday newspaper and when it tells its readers “Don’t Shop at Sweatshops” it means the worst payers among the private traders, but though the Cooperative societies often pay rather more, their wage agreements are not exactly princely. The Cooperative Agreement made in July, 1959, fixed a rate for men shop assistants ranging from £8 15s. in Provincial areas up to £9 9s. in London, and in July, 1960, the Union applied for a national minimum of £10 a week in cooperative societies as well as a reduction of hours from 44 to 40. The claim has not been conceded. Large numbers of railwaymen and government workers get below £9 a week, along with the agricultural worker on his new minimum of £8 9s.

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