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Constructive Imperialism
by Viscount Milner
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Now, if you have followed this rather dry argument, I shall probably have your concurrence when I say, that the proposal that the State should intervene to secure, not an all-round minimum wage, but the same wages for the same work, and nothing less than the standard rate of his particular work for every worker, is not a proposition that the State should do something new, or exceptional, or impracticable. It is a proposal that the State should do for the weakest and most helpless trades what the strongly-organised trades already do for themselves. I cannot see that there is anything unreasonable, much less revolutionary or subversive, in that suggestion.

This proposal has taken practical form in a Bill presented to the House of Commons last session. Whether the measure reached its second reading or not I do not know. It was a Bill for the establishment of Wages Boards in certain industries employing great numbers of workpeople, such as tailoring, shirtmaking, and so on. The industries selected were those in which the employes, though numerous, are hopelessly disorganised and unable to make a bargain for themselves. And the Bill provided that where any six persons, whether masters or employes, applied to the Home Secretary for the establishment of a Wages Board, such a Board should be created in the particular industry and district concerned; that it should consist of representatives of employers and employed in equal proportions, with an impartial chairman; and that it should have the widest possible discretion to fix rates of remuneration. If Wages Boards were established, as the Bill proposed, they would simply do for sweated trades what is already constantly being done in organised trades, with no doubt one important difference, that the decisions of these Boards would be enforceable by law. Now that no doubt may seem to many of you a drastic proposition. But I would strongly recommend any one interested in the subject to study a recently-published Blue-book, one of the most interesting I have ever read, which contains the evidence given before the House of Commons Committee on Home Work. That Blue-book throws floods of light on the conditions which have led to the proposal of Wages Boards, on the way in which these Boards would be likely to work, and on the results of the operation of such Boards in the Colony of Victoria, where they have existed for more than ten years, and now apply to more than forty industries. The perusal of that evidence would, I feel sure, remove some at least of the most obvious objections to this proposed remedy for sweating.

Many people look askance, and justly look askance, at the interference of the State in anything so complicated and technical as a schedule of wages for any particular industry. But the point to bear in mind is this, that the wages, which under this proposal would be enforceable by law, would be wages that had been fixed for a particular industry in a particular district by persons intimately cognisant with all the circumstances, and, more than that, by persons having the deepest common interest to avoid anything which could injure the industry. The rates of remuneration so arrived at would be based on the consideration of what the employers could afford to pay and yet retain such a reasonable rate of profit as would lead to their remaining in the industry. Such a regulation of wages would be as great a protection to the best employers against the cut-throat competition of unscrupulous rivals as it would be to the workers against being compelled to sell their labour for less than its value. There is plenty of evidence that the regulation of wages would be welcomed by many employers. And as for the fear sometimes expressed, that it would injure the weakest and least efficient workers, because, with increased wages, it would no longer be profitable to employ them, it must be borne in mind that people of that class are mainly home workers, and as remuneration for home work must be based on the piece, there would be no reason why they should not continue to be employed. No doubt they would not benefit as much as more efficient workers from increased rates, but pro tanto they would still benefit, and that is a consideration of great importance. But even if this were not the case, I would still contend, that it was unjustifiable to allow thousands of people to remain in a preventable state of misery and degradation all their lives, merely in order to keep a tenth of their number out of the workhouse a few years longer.

I have only one more word to say. I come back to the supreme interest of the community in the efficiency and welfare of all its members, to say nothing of the removal of the stain upon its honour and conscience which continued tolerance of this evil involves. That to my mind is the greatest consideration of all. That is the true reason, as it would be the sufficient justification, for the intervention of the State. And, or my own part, I feel no doubt that, whether by the adoption of such a measure as we have been considering, or by some other enactment, steps will before long be taken for the removal of this national disgrace.



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