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Two government enquiries into "The sweating system"

Christine Gates of the Dale Street Women's Health Centre at Port Adelaide coordinates its Outworkers Project. She said "There was a government enquiry into sweated labour in 1890, based in Melbourne. It was remarkable that there were close links between the women's community organisations in different states working closely together on this issue - unusual for the time. The issues today are exactly the same as in those times. I attended a Senate enquiry into outwork in the clothing industry and a member of the enquiry remarked that if the outwork problem was so great, why were there vacancies in clothing factories? This sounded familiar, and I looked again at the 1890 enquiry and the same view was being expressed then by government members. They did not understand the gap between women working at home and working away from home. We are starting again to get better coordination on the outwork question now."

In 1890 the First Australasian Conference on Charity was held in Melbourne from 11—17 November, convened by the Charity Organization Society of Melbourne. Remarkably for the time, speakers came from around the country and from New Zealand to explain how their welfare systems operated and to discuss common problems. This group of representatives could be seen as the forerunner of the present peak welfare body in Australia, the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS). A paper was given on Government enquiry on sweating in 1890 Victoria by Mr J A Levey, a system which would have been comparable to that in South Australia.

The exploitation through poor pay, difficult working conditions, and lack of understanding of their rights, that caused a Government enquiry back in 1890 are still in existence today, prompting a Government enquiry on Outworkers in 1996.

I have italicised the same view about women "preferring" outwork to factory jobs expressed in government enquiries over 100 years apart.

Government enquiry on sweating in 1890 graphically described by Mr J A Levey

About the middle of the present year I was instructed by the Government to make an inquiry as to what extent the "Sweating System" existed in this colony, more especially in connexion with the clothing trade. Just at that time several articles had appeared in one of the Melbourne newspapers on this subject. I remember very well the first one. It was headed 'Sweaters in Melbourne. Horrors of the Clothing Trade', and sweating was referred to as mean, frowsy, depraved, and pitiful, and it was stated that it was carried on in Melbourne to a degree hardly less horrible than the incidence of its prevalence in London. The articles created a great amount of sensation at the time, and we all felt that the clothes we were wearing were very possibly made in some dirty loathsome den, reeking with filth and disease, and that we were spreading contagion wherever we went.

I could not understand it. My official duties had taken me into all kinds of work-rooms, and although not wishing to say that all these rooms were, or are, everything that they should be, still I had not seen any rooms to which such terms could with truth be applied. Then, again, the articles referred to spoke of the long hours that sweaters employed their work-people. The Factories Act in this colony does not allow females to be employed more than 48 hours a week, but here we read of 78 and 80 hours as being an ordinary week's work. This, again, was astonishing.

Employers of labour continually said that they could not obtain the female workers they required, and that when any extra pressure of work came they were compelled to make use of the privileges of the Act and obtain permission to work over-time. It therefore seemed unreasonable to say that women would work inordinately long hours in wretched rooms when they could get work in decent factories and work only 48 hours a week.

As regards men, they have their unions, and it was felt that they were not likely to be imposed upon to any extent. With these feelings, I naturally commenced my labours in a very sceptical spirit, and what was found? That the whole question had been so muddled up and complicated by mixing together the various classes of work into which the clothing trade is divided that the articles were-to say the least-very misleading. The result of my inquiries was embodied in an official report, and laid before Parliament, and a copy can be obtained by any one who feels inclined to go into the subject more closely.

In the discussion which followed each paper, Catherine Helen Spence made a number of points, which are probably as applicable today as they were then.

Miss Spence had been very much interested in Mr. Levey's paper, but she did not think that the evil complained of was so much the fault of the middleman as of the great buying public, which wanted a cheap article. She thought the wholesale houses, as a rule, were the agents of this sweating. They did not care how the article was made. They were a very soulless and conscienceless body. (No, no.) The fact was patent. It was not possible for the unskilled widow to maintain a young family by herself, yet if the wages were put up to the rate at which she could make things as comfortable as when her husband was alive it would mean putting up the price of the goods, and raise both wages and rent. She did not think that that could be expected. The worker must have some assistance, but it should not be pauperizing. The woman should have a claim, and not be pauperised by the help given. It was often the unskilfulness of the woman who was "sweated" which prevented her getting good wages. If she could be taught to do something better a very important result would be obtained. When she read in the "Bitter cry of outcast London" that the boys were singing hymns over the match-box making she thought it would be better for them to be making something else, and getting more money for it.

Government enquiry on Outworkers in 1996

Senator Chapman—

Several of the in-house manufacturers we have either had evidence from or visited interstate in the last few days have indicated to us that they have periodically advertised for employees and cannot get them; they simply cannot get them. Obviously there are some home workers who, for one reason or another, would not be able to take on a full-time permanent job away from home. Perhaps it might not suit their domestic circumstances, or whatever. But one would have thought that if there are a significant number of home workers who are not doing it by choice they would be applicants for these jobs—but they do not seem to be. Can you give me some information on that?


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