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Hours Of Employment (Conventions) Bill Lords

Volume 312: debated on Monday 11 May 1936

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Order for Second Reading read.

9.13 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Two conventions were adopted by the International Labour Conference at Geneva. The Government have announced their intention of ratifying them, subject to the necessary legislation being passed by Parliament. The first of them is with regard to the employment of women at night in industrial undertakings, and it revises a convention on the same subject passed at Washington in 1919. The new convention differs from the old in that it contains a specific exemption for women holding responsible positions of management who are not ordinarily engaged in manual work. Some countries were of opinion that the words in the old convention did not apply to women holding managerial posts, but in this country it was believed that the words did apply. When the matter was taken to the International Court at the Hague, they decided that the view held in this country was correct, and that the convention, which was meant purely for the protection of manual workers, also applied to women holding managerial posts. Therefore, at the International Labour Conference at Geneva, this revision was proposed, and by Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill it is now proposed to bring that revised convention into force.

The other Convention is one dealing with a technical matter of very limited application, namely, the system of shift working for persons employed in continuous operations in sheet glass works where so-called automatic machines are used. The Convention, which resulted from the discussions at Geneva, aims at providing a rest period for workers engaged in this industry, where the processes are continuous throughout the day and night and also throughout the weekend. The purpose of the Convention is to lay down provisions giving to these workers proper rest at the week-ends. There is only one firm concerned in this country, and as a matter of fact the Convention is in accordance with the present arrangements of that firm with regard to hours, and we understand that they support it. Of course the Convention, when it is adopted by other countries, will ensure that a similarly satisfactory system is followed in those countries. The Government of Northern Ireland are prepared, when these Conventions are ratified here, to apply them to Northern Ireland.

9.17 p.m.

I think the House is indebted to the Under-Secretary for his very clear and concise statement. We on this side welcome the Measure. We have at times deplored the inactivity of British Governments in regard to the ratification of various Conventions. The International Labour Office has passed 49 Conventions, of which only 19 have been ratified by British Governments, and we particularly welcome the attitude of His Majesty's Government in regard to the ratification of these two Conventions. With regard to the first of them, while we shall jealously guard against any attempt at whittling away or undermining the protective legislation with respect to the employment of women in industry, we think that the revision provided in the Bill is very necessary. It conforms with modern requirements, and no doubt meets the views of the countries associated with the administration of the Convention which was passed in 1919. To the Convention relating to sheet glass works we are also able to accord our support, but there is one point which I should like to make, and on which I hope we shall receive some assurance. In Sub-section (1) of Clause 3 it is provided that in certain circumstances a departure may be made from the statutory provisions regarding shift work and employment, and in Sub-section (3) it is provided that the additional hours worked, when there is such a departure, shall be paid for by way of compensation after agreement between the workers' representatives and the employers, or, failing that, as prescribed by the Secretary of State after consultation with the Minister of Labour. Provision is also made for the keeping of a record of the additional hours worked and the compensation paid, and I desire that, when the Secretary of State prescribes the form for this record, he should make arrangements for it to contain a record of the cause of the departure from the hours set out in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman can give that assurance, we shall not only welcome the Bill but shall offer no opposition to it, either to-night or during its further stages.

9.20 p.m.

We on these benches are very glad to support the Second Reading of this Measure and to congratulate the Government on an excellent piece of legislation. In this respect at any rate they are carrying out an obligation to the League of Nations. The conventions have been agreed to at Geneva, and, in passing the necessary municipal legislation for bringing them into force in this country we are setting a very good example. I think it is wise that we should have these conventions, because, as the standard of working conditions in this country is better than or at least as good as in other countries, anything that can be done to bring our competitors up to our standard will equalise matters for us and put us in a fairer and better position as regards international competition. The hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Short) has referred to the number of conventions that are still unratified, and, while it would be out of order to pursue the matter on this Measure, I hope the Under-Secretary will take an early opportunity of indicating what it is proposed to do with all the unratified conventions, and when the necessary legislation for dealing with those which the Government have promised to ratify will be introduced.

There is nothing revolutionary in either of the conventions referred to in the present Bill. They are in a very minor key, but, so far as they go, they are good. They deal in a very piecemeal way with the great question of international industrial legislation. It is interesting to note that the first of them is rendered necessary by the interpretation of a Statute by the World Court. It is satisfactory to note the attention that is paid to the court. The matter is referred to the court, the decision of the court is accepted, and the various Governments in different parts of the world pass the necessary local legislation to put themselves in the right position as a result of that decision.

So far as this country is concerned, there is opposition to the Measure in one quarter alone. Certain women's organisations, representing by no means the whole of the women workers of the country, are opposed to it because they think it is wrong that a matter affecting night work should be dealt with on a sex basis. They contend that it should be dealt with according to the nature of the work, and that anyone of either sex, who cannot do the work, should be prohibited from doing it. For that reason they find themselves against the proposal, and from their point of view there is this to be said, that while, under the convention which has now been in operation for 10 years, notice of withdrawal can be given at any moment, when the present Measure is passed it will not be possible to give notice to withdraw for 10 years. Therefore, it makes their position considerably more difficult. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary would feel able to make some comment on the position taken up by these organisations. I do not pretend myself to be entirely in sympathy with their point of view, but they feel keenly about the matter, and if my hon. Friend could say something it would be meeting a serious point of opposition in a reasonable way.

9.26 p.m.

I am afraid that I do, not feel as happy about this Bill as the last speaker, and I am not going to use the argument that because this has come through Geneva, therefore we should be quite enthusiastic about it. Why this hurry on the part of the Government in order to help this particular industry in this way? Why is it that the people in a managerial position or a position of responsibility—I do not know whether that is to be defined sometime—are being dealt with in such a way that they will be entitled to work throughout the night and under conditions of four shifts a day, covering 24 hours of the day and seven days a week. Under this Measure these places will be operating for the whole of the hours, 168 hours a week, and women may be employed for a shift on each of these days, on a Sunday as well as on the other days of the week. I wonder why it is that the sheet glass trade—if it can be clearly defined, and if a line of demarcation can be drawn between it and other sections of the glass industry has been specially chosen for this purpose. Does it mean that this may be extended in the near future to other industries which may be continuing their operations by the use of automatic machines?

It is amazing that the main feature of this is that this industry has within recent years operated many automatic machines, and that they have a continuous process. Other industries have in recent years introduced and are operating to-day automatic machines, and are engaged on continuous processes. Does it mean that we are going to open up industry so that we shall have women engaged on these continuous processes working all the hours of the day and night? I see few safeguards in this Measure. While they say that the hours of the week shall be 42, the Bill speaks of a particular shift not exceeding eight hours. Again, provision is made that when the change-over comes from working in the morning one week to the afternoon or night shift in the next week, then there may be an increase of hours. It is an amazing thing that at this time of day those people who are advising the Government have not been able to arrange that the change-over shall take place without there having to be an increase of the hours of work for those who are engaged in that change-over.

Article 3 makes reference to "in case of urgent work." There are some of us who have been employed in the engineering trade for many years and we know what the word "urgent" can mean. It covers anything which the employer cares to bring under its shelter, and I would like to know why this word is included in order that these few women might be engaged in the sheet-glass industry, coming as it does after the introduction of the two-shift system for women and young persons. It is an amazing feature that the early efforts of the Government are all in favour of worsening working conditions in industry and making is possible for women to work night hours in a way that is not to the advantage of this country if it operated in the case of men. Why in this particular industry, an industry about which you ought to think twice before engaging women in what is termed a position of responsibility, are you asking us to agree to this? It is not to the advantage of this country that we should engage in our work in this way.

9.32 p.m.

May I say a word on this Bill arising entirely out of my own experience as a delegate to Geneva for two years running? I am pleased to welcome even a small Bill of this kind. I have always taken the view that when the International Labour Office decides on a convention and that convention is carried by the requisite two-thirds majority of the employers' representatives and the workmen's representatives, there is an obligation on the British Government to ratify it if it is at all possible. My complaint is that this kind of Bill, ratifying Geneva conventions, is not brought before this House in all cases, and, in point of fact, always in a minority of cases. The Under-Secretary says, "We have a nice little Bill here. The first part of it simply carries on the usual custom we have in this country. The second part lays down certain conditions for sheet glass manufacture, but as we have only so many in this country doing that kind of work and are already operating this policy, everything in the garden is lovely and we are not likely to have any criticism of the proposal." But in the course of this Debate the question was brought up whether, dealing with the employment of women on night work, it is altogether wise to exempt any women. I cannot understand why, if it is not good for a certain woman to work at night doing a certain job, it can he very good for another woman employed in the same industry to be allowed to continue to work at night.

It has rather an important bearing on Geneva conventions generally. For instance, we had a convention carried at Geneva which was devised to abolish night-baking which the Government refused to ratify. There is included in this Bill an exemption which may be taken as a very serious precedent, because I am not without hope of seeing the nightbaking convention ratified. Sometimes perseverance is rewarded and, even if this Government will not ratify it, I hope that some Government some day will. When it comes to a question of continuous night working, I do not want a precedent created that some women may be exempt from its provisions. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) said it was very nice to hear the Under-Secretary say we had submitted this case to the International Court of Justice at the Hague, that they gave a certain decision and the Government have adopted it—because it happened to be the opinion of the British Government too. I also attended a meeting at the Hague and submitted an important point in relation to this kind of legislation as to whether legislation which applied to industrial workers might not also be applied to employers in the industry. On that occasion the Court said that in certain cases it might apply to employers and to families who were employers also. Article 3 of Part I of the Schedule to this Bill says:
"Women without distinction of age shall not be employed through the night in any public or private industrial undertaking, or any branch thereof, other than an undertaking in which only members of the same family are employed."
That sounds very nice, but here again I should be sorry to see a precedent set up, because on the day that we ratify the abolition of night-baking it will be necessary that the members of a family engaged in baking shall also came under the law; otherwise we shall have the whole thing reduced to a farce. I want to safeguard the future position so far as other ratifications of conventions are concerned. On the general principle of the ratification of Geneva conventions, we have some reasonable ground of complaint because we have ratified only 19, and this small one, of course, will account for another; but they are so narrow and limited that they do not interfere with our present customs. It is easy to pass legislation of this kind and for the Government to get credit for it by going to Geneva and saying, "We have ratified two conventions since we were here on the last occasion." Loud cheers from every one in the conference!

There is going to be among a certain section of women's organizations a demand that women should be allowed to do precisely the same work as men in any circumstances. They can argue that, on this question of forbidding women to be employed at night, the principle is all wrong. They will say there is no difference between a woman working all night and a man working all night, and they make it rather a sex question of men keeping women out of the industry. As one who knows something about nightwork, I declare of my own knowledge that we are very wise to forbid women engaging in continuous night work. I wish the House could see some of the men who are compelled to work six nights a week for 52 weeks in a year with no interval, no shift system and no change. They would see men of 50 years of age who are physical wrecks. If it was only that this Measure provides some small protection for women I should welcome it. I hope we are not going to embark, even, in a small Measure like this, on the principle of exemptions. The curse of the House of Commons is that it is so ready to compromise on everything in order to get the smooth passage of a Bill. I hope that the Bill will get its Second Reading, small as it is, and that we may endeavour to get some alterations which will protect our position that it must not necessarily be taken as a precedent for other industries.

9.42 p.m.

The actual position at present is that there is no general prohibition of nightwork for women. What there is a restriction upon the employment of women at night in certain occupations. Apart from that, there is no general prohibition. Therefore, the Bill is not making an inroad on a generally accepted principle. I agree with the hon. Member's general outlook on the employment of women at night. With reference to his remarks on the views of the women's organisation that he mentioned, I understand that it appears to be moved by a really intellectual outlook upon this question—what one might describe as a theoretical outlook. Their idea is that there should be no restrictions whatever on the employment of women, and they wish to see all of the restrictions abolished. Therefore, while they are in, favour of the revision of this convention because it is in the direction of the abolition of restrictions, they are opposed to the convention as a whole because it lays down restrictions on the employment of women. I think the view of the House upon an attitude of that kind would be that we are not prepared to throw overboard all the principles upon which our legislation on this subject has been built up for many years simply at the instance of a theoretical and doctrinaire outlook.

No doubt if these ladies persist in their attitude and are able to attract a great measure of support in the country that their views are right, we may have to consider the matter. But at the moment I do not believe that we ought to be moved by this consideration. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Kelly) asked me one or two questions, and I think he was somewhat under a misapprehension in thinking that these two Conventions were related to each other. He referred to the position of managerial women in the glass industry, rather giving the impression that he felt that there was some relation between the two Conventions. There is not; they are entirely independent. There is no particular relevance of one convention to the subject matter of the other. He also asked me why all this hurry? These Conventions were passed at Geneva in 1934, and I do not think that there is undue hurry. He was the only hon. Member to conduct discussion to-night on a partisan basis, and I feel that his attack upon the Government falls to the ground, since I do not think that undue haste can really be alleged against the Government.

As a matter of fact, this question was interrupted by the general election. Legislation had already been introduced in another place before the election, and it fell to the ground and had to be reintroduced in the new Parliament. I now come to deal with the very useful question addressed to me by the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Short) of the provision under which there are certain relaxations of the code in regard to which forms of record should be kept. I think that I understand him aright when I say that his view is that, whereas he is ready to agree that, in certain circumstances, there must be a relaxation to meet practical conditions, yet he is very anxious to see that there should be no abuse, and that it should not be unduly easy. We entirely agree with him. We are able to meet him by referring him to Sub-section (3) of Clause 3 in which it is laid down that the Secretary of State has the power of prescribing the form, and to tell him that we are prepared to give special consideration to the importance of saying for the information of the inspectors, the precise circumstances in which advantage is taken of the proviso in question. I hope very much that that will meet the point of the hon. Gentleman, and that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for To-morrow.—[ Commander Southby.]