Dora B. Montefiore July 1911
Source: Justice, July 8, 1911, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
From time to time the Capitalist papers in Australia send up wailing appeals for immigrants, and lays plan for how best to attract the unwary worker from Great Britain, even sometimes, in despair; from other countries of Europe. It may be as well, therefore, to let workers in Great Britain know something about the facts of wages and conditions in Australia before they take the leap of exchanging capitalist exploitation in the old country for capitalist exploitation in the new. Lest, also, they should be deluded by the sight of two “Labour” Prime Ministers – a boilermaker and a miner – on exhibition at the present moment in England into thinking that with “Labour” in power in Australia all must be well there for the working man, it seems a particularly fit opportunity for summing up the situation, and at the same time pointing out how absolutely accurate is the working of the economic interpretation of the “iron law of Wages,” which postulates that wages fall or rise in exact ratio as rent and the cost of living fall or rise.
Much has been written lately in the Sydney papers as to the increased cost of living, and as a practical housekeeper I can prove by my bills that, with the exception of meat, every class of provision is dearer here than in England.
As I found my greengrocer’s bills so high I asked a working-class comrade what she was paying for cabbages, French beans, cauliflowers and eggs; the answer I received was: cabbages, 8d. each; cauliflowers, 10d. French beans, 1s. a peck; and eggs, 2s.8d. a dozen. These prices she quoted were a few pence less than I am paying, but working, but working women in England will appreciate the difficulty even if wages are double, of marketing for a household with prices of everyday commodities ranging as high as this. In a paper read at the Interstate Science Congress at Sydney University in February of this year it was said that “in Australia the increase in the cost of living in recent years had been estimated variously at from 10 to 25 per cent. In New Zealand the rise had been equally pronounced.”
Mr. Griffiths, the Minister for Works, stated on April 27 that “there is an infamous monopoly in the retail fruit trade in Sydney .... It is because of the monopoly the traders enjoy, that the rents are heavy. If they could not get their present enormous profits rents would soon come down, and the person who would lose would be the wealthy landlord. The people of Sydney were almost as completely at the mercy of those who controlled the trade in fish as of those who controlled the trade in fruit.”
Now let us turn to housing. The headlines of a paragraph in an April number of the “Sydney Morning Herald” are: “Miners Herding in Huts”: “The People Crowded with Typhoid Patients.” The following are extracts from the “par”: “The houses are of a most insanitary and unsafe kind. A great many are erected on land owned by adjacent colliery companies. They are mere huts, put up without order, and constructed of material collected almost haphazard.”
It was further disclosed that if the sanitary authorities issued an order to close these huts “the effect would be practically to deprive the tenant of his employment, for no decent houses to which he might move exist in the neighbourhood.”
I myself saw the same sort of housing in the Wolgan valley where the Commonwealth Oil Co. have started their large shale works. Every sort of “shack” and hovel, constructed of gunny bags, canvas, galvanised iron, or disused iron ceiling, hung on the banks of the river, whose water was drunk by the inhabitants of the hovels, and into which trickled the slops and surface drainage.
Lithgow, the “future Pittsburg,” has as yet no drainage; but it has a Government small arms factory. Provision, you will observe, for destroying life, but none for protecting life!
At the temporary township erected at the Burrenjuck Dam Works the workers and their families are all housed in galvanised iron cottages; and the accommodation for unmarried men consists of lines of galvanised iron sheds, little higher than hen houses, with only a shutter for a window. The door of one was opened for us to see the interior; the furniture consisted of a wire-spring stretcher and some old rugs. These men work seven days a week, and take meals at boarding-houses in the township. The town is a “Prohibition” one. So the miserable state of the interior of the hovel of the unfortunate working man whose “lair” I had the privilege of inspecting was not due to “the curse of drink.”
I will now tell the story of a working-man, immigrant to this country, the facts relating to whose case I can personally vouch for. The man in question has been a soldier, and has a coat covered with medals, some of which are for service in the Boer War. About two years ago he came out here, leaving his wife and three children in England. When I came across him six months ago, his employment was night watchman in a garage in which my son has an interest. The man did some odd jobs in the way of carpentering for me when I was moving into my house, and I found on inquiry that, as he had to send large proportion of his wages home to his family his increased wages out here were of little service to him. I then asked him why he did not have his wife and family out; his reply was that it would cost him £15 to do so, and that he had not the money. I then suggested that the Government was giving assisted passages out;, and that, as there was a cry in Australia for more population it should be of advantage to the state for its steady workers to have their wives and families on this side of the water. His reply was that the Government would only assist to pay for the passages of the families of agricultural labourers. On inquiry at the Emigration Bureau I found this to be correct. I felt so keenly the wrong that was being done in the stupid destruction of this man’s home-life that I finally advanced him £15 and out of his £2 a week wage he is paying me every week what he can afford. He told me a few days ago he expected, his family to arrive in about a fortnight. Then, I asked him if he had taken a cottage and he replied he had seen one he thought would suit at 16s. a week. This appears to be about the lowest rent for the most ordinary cottage large enough for a family, and I leave my readers to guess how much the worker out here benefits by getting £2 a week for a job which in England would command about 25s. a week. The landlord and the other monopolists are busy relieving this man and other workers like him of the extra 15s a week!
Now, as regards hours, and the speeding up or driving of workers. I have already alluded to the case of the men at Burrenjuck, who, working on a contract job, sublet by a Labour Government to private contractors, toil seven days a week! Under the heading “Sweating in Warehouses” I take the following from the “Sydney Morning Herald”: Let Mr. Beely (the Labour Minister for Industries), or the inspector, examine the overtime book of any warehouse, and he will find the same men have worked five and six weeks without a night off. The writer has had three nights off this month, and, is told he will have to work for fully another month before the night-work ceases.” In the “Sydney Daily Telegraph” of May 25 under the heading “Trouble over Puddling,” we are told by Mr. Dixon, the secretary of the Lithgow Branch of the Federated Iron-workers Association of Australia that the puddlers in Mr. Hoskins’s Ironworks have ceased work because “some of these men, have lately, drawn only £3 per fortnight, and their under-hands anything from 30s to £2. This, notwithstanding the award for puddlers provides that their hourly wage should be 1s.6d. per hour for puddlers and 101/2d per hour for under-hands. The award also reads, that if the employer pelts them on tonnage he shall fix a rate at such a price as shall enable them to earn not less than 5 per. cent above their hourly wage. In America puddlers receive 29s.6d. per. ton, in England 8s.8d, and in Lithgow 18.s per ton. Out of that 18s. puddlers have to pay their under-hands 7s. per ton, so that reality they receive only 11s. per ton. In America a puddler can puddle 25 cwt. to 30 cwt: per shift; in Lithgow he is very fortunate to turn out anything, from 20 cwt. to 25 cwt. per shift. Furthermore the puddlers here have to work ten, eleven and twelve hours to do that, in the other two countries mentioned they turn out more in a less number of hours.”
A Lithgow ironworker who travelled to Australia in the same ship as myself, in a private letter to me, writes: “It is true wages are higher here, so also is rent, and almost all other things but worse than all, in almost every other branch of industry work is harder. Now this it a fact which every working man from England will admit, and which every said man least expects. Who would expect that in this Australia, where the temperature is more often above 100 deg. than below, and where everything grows in such abundance – - why even up here, over 3,000 feet above the sea level, grapes grow outside the houses – I say, who would expect in such a country to find men driven harder than beasts of burden? Yet under this baleful system of capitalism such is the case; and I ask anyone, manual worker or not, in taking a walk through the streets of Sydney let him or her stand a few minutes and watch the workers, and they cannot get over the fact that they have to work much harder than in the old country – bad as it is. I say, myself, that the workers have to perform more in their eight hours than they do in the old country, in twelve, notwithstanding, the different climatic conditions.”
As to whether there is a real shortage of labour in this State of New South Wales, I take, the following from the “Sydney Daily Telegraph” – of May 26 1911: – Mr A Rickard of Messrs. Arthur Rickard and Co. admits he received a surprise yesterday morning. He advertised for forty-one general labourers in the ‘Telegraph,’ and before noon he had several hundred applicants. When the office opened at nine o’clock there were dozens waiting and the numbers increasing rapidly they ran over the premises inside and jammed the door outside. Judging the men as a whole they were of the average hard-working type, and were mostly eager to accept, the offered 8s. day ... We engaged fifty-nine men, and could have had many more, had we wanted them.”
To these who understand that the power of capitalism is based on this possibility of buying in a glutted labour market Just as much labour as it requires, whilst leaving the balance who fail to get employment to starve, this experience of Mr. Rikard’s speaks for itself; but in order to make all things right with the capitalist paper publishing the information, Mr Rickard continues: “Speaking generally, there has never been a more universal shortage of labour in the history of the State. All kinds of industry and enterprises are being retarded and the State’s development hindered. He was certain that a bold immigration policy would mean more prosperity to the workers themselves, for every newcomer would be a spender as well as an earner.”
Illustrated articles have been appearing lately in a Sydney magazine called “The Lone Hand” under the title of “The Hidden Shame,” in which is exposed the sweating of women and girls what is known as the “White Workers’ industry!” The joint writers of the articles state that “it is a hideous truth that these white Australian slaves declare they prefer to work for Syrians in preference to some of the white Australian firms, because the Syrian tyrant and sweater is kinder than the tyrant of their own race.”
The work these women do in their own homes is cheap underclothing, shirts and skirts, the bulk of which go into the country, where they are distributed among the stores and wandering hawkers – Hindoos, Syrians and Chinese – hundreds of them. But the output is very considerably enhanced by orders from white men’s stores and shops, particularly in Queensland. This has the double advantage of increasing the profit of all concerned, excepting, of course, the broken women, whose sewing machines speed through the long hours of a hopeless misery.
Working many hours a day these women seldom earn more than ten, twelve or fourteen shillings a week, and have in the heat of summer to carry their heavy bundles of finished goods back to the warehouses that employ them. The sweated workers, and others who, under capitalism, only make a bare and precarious living, are the cause of the Sydney slums, the area of which is increasing rapidly. The religious denominations, are attempting to deal with this curse of the great city; but there again we, as Socialists, know the slums being caused by the economic pressure which is brought to bear on those who dwell in them. The only way to clear slum areas is to do away with monopolist landlords, and give the workers the full reward of their labour. In an interview with some of the clergy, who are, like Dame Partington attempting with a spiritual broom to keep back the waves of menacing slumdom, the “Sydney Morning Herald,” May 29 1911, gives us the following “The trouble is that people must live close to their work. To move further out means, an immediate increase in the cost of getting to and from work. There is no doubt that congestion in the neighbourhood of Chippendale is as acute as it was before the City Council set out to demolish slums. Perhaps the conditions are worse. One primal necessity is a check upon the greed of those who seek to crowd two houses upon a piece of land hardly large enough for one house.... I know of houses that fairly reek with the germs of disease.... In one particular room that I know of I was sent for on three occasions within a year to read prayers over men who had contracted sickness there from which they never recovered. The third man had been warned that two deaths had taken place in the room a few months previously, but the warning was not taken seriously. This third death gave the house a bad name; and it was empty for a few months. The next tenant was a widow with several children, and when one of them who occupied the ‘death chamber’ was attacked by illness I threatened that if the house were not vacated I would call in the police. Many deaths from consumption occur in these overcrowded districts, and little seem to be done to guard against the dissemination of disease. In scores of places where families have used one room for eating and sleeping death from consumption has taken place. The brightest ray of light and sweetness that we can put into sordid lives is the message of the Gospel.”
If one did not know that this was an account of Sydney’s slums, would one not think that the reverend gentleman, was describing Southwark or Fulham, or the neighbourhood of Barking Road!
I forget for the moment how many million acres Australia boasts of when she launches her great immigration propositions, but I know it sounds imposing to those in the crowded old country! The workers must not forget that capitalism takes with it its slum atmosphere, its unemployed, its consumption areas and working-class rate of mortality. The land of Australia is not for you, oh, workers! It is for the men who write those immigration appeals, and who are not satisfied when they advertise for forty men for a job and get hundreds in reply to the advertisement. For you, the people of the abyss, there is overcrowding, ever-increasing cost of living, fever, consumption, and a repetition on a smaller sale of what you have thought to have escaped from in leaving the slums of the old country.
We have over here the Salvation Army, with its “slum workers”; we have the various religious denominations working at the “uplifting of the individual” we have to crown all, the Labour Party in power, whose leader in the House tells the land monopolist “he may sleep quietly in his bed, for no attack on his privileges will be made by the existing Government.” And we have a small but daily increasing, and very determined Socialist body, which interprets day by day for the worker what is the meaning of the conditions under which he is forced, in a new country to live. And the strength of our small body lies in the fact that it is international; that our press is linked up throughout the world, and that the messages that we are ending to the workers of the world strengthen those workers to understand that there is only one enemy they have to fight here, there and everywhere, and that enemy is capitalism!
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.