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Factory Night Work (Women)

Volume 793: debated on Monday 15 December 1969

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Armstrong.]

11.44 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity tonight of raising the general question of women employed on night work; in particular, the illustration of the practice of women being employed on night work at Shuresta, Ltd., of Exhall, which has been allowed by exemption of the Department of Employment and Productivity to employ women in this way.

I raise this question because many el my constituents are employed at this factory. Indeed, I am raising the matter at the special request of the district secretary of the A.E.F. and of other trade unionists in the City of Coventry who have been greatly exercised by the fact that Shuresta, Ltd., has made, with the consent apparently of the Department, what seems to them to be a dangerous breach of the principle by which women are not employed on night work. This principle was established by the I.L.O. Convention, to which Britain does not yet subscribe; but it also derives from various Acts.

The Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act, 1920, first prohibited the employment of women at night. That Act was supplemented by the Factories Act, 1961, which was the basis of our present legislation, and was designed to protect women, among others, from the gross exploitation which so many of them had had to endure during the Industrial Revolution.

These laws, broadly speaking, are in line with the legislation of some of the most advanced industrial and democratically progressive countries in Western Europe. Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden have banned night work for women. The E.E.C. countries have also banned night work for women. It is, indeed, only the fact that, we permit the possibility of exemptions for women on night work which prevents us from subscribing to the I.L.O. Convention.

It is significant that in 1967 there were 3 000 exemptions given for women to engage in night work. This year the figure has risen to 15,000. Therefore, I ask the Under-Secretary whether we are not perhaps in the process of legislation by the enlargement of exemptions.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity showed her concern about the matter by setting up a working party to consider the working of the Factories Act, 1961, and in particular some of the sections affecting women. On the question of women on night work, there was a general division between those representing the T.U.C., on the one hand, who were totally opposed to the employment of women on night work, and the representatives of the C.B.I., on the other hand, who were generally in favour of such employment.

Indeed, the C.B.I, set up its own working party on the subject under the chairmanship of Miss Hampshire, the headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies' College. I do not know what experience she has of industry. I can only record that her conclusion and that of her associates was that it was a good thing for women to be employed on night work.

The T.U.C. was strongly against it. Paragraphs 20 and 21 of the Report by the Working Party set up by the D.E.P. summarise the arguments as follows:
"(20) The main argument put forward by the T.U.C. representatives for keeping some restrictions is that because a large proportion of working women are married with not only house and husband but also often children to look after, they have in effect a multiplicity of jobs. Thus the pressures to which they are subject are likely to cause them to overwork against their better judgment. This may not only damage their health and increase the risk of accidents, but have serious effects on the well-being of the family. In the interest of society generally, it is argued, the state must intervene to protect women against the combined effect of those social and economic pressures. (21) This argument is put forward particularly strongly in regard to night work. Women on night work still have to do domestic work. It is argued that if they still do this during the day they are likely to become overtired with a consequent risk of increased accidents. On the other hand, neglect of their domestic responsibilities may have serious social consequences in regard to family life, juvenile delinquency, etc."
That argument has been put so clearly by the T.U.C. that I do not need to underline it.

To return to the case of Shuresta, I can do no better than quote, to illustrate the sort of thing that has been going on, from a letter which I have received from the district secretary to the A.E.F. The district secretary is a most energetic and able man and is deeply concerned about these people whom he represents. He wrote to me about the situation as follows:
"For over 15 years the unions have had a running battle with this company about the extremely bad wages and conditions. I have attended repeated meetings with the company arising from complaints from members about filthy conditions in the factory in the lavatory and lack of protective clothing.
To come to the situation of women being employed on nights, approximately 16 months ago I was informed that women were working on nights. I immediately contacted the local Factory Inspector and asked for these women to be withdrawn. An investigation took place and the women were withdrawn.
This year at the beginning of November I was again informed that women were being employed on night shift. Again I was in touch with the local Factory Inspector and drew attention to the fact the company were employing women on nights. The women were withdrawn from night shift on 14th November. You will note that on the two previous occasions this company has been in breach of the law and absolutely nothing was done about it. No special provisions were made in the field of welfare while employing these women on nights. The only other concession that was granted was a canteen where women could make tea for themselves. No staff was laid on for them in this respect."
I could continue because the district secretary has gone into the matter with great thoroughness, and it is clear the company is extremely unsatisfactory in its employment of women and provides a perfect illustration of some of the major social reasons why women should not be employed on night work in factories.

I ask my hon. Friend a few questions. Why has no legal action been taken in the past against this company for being in breach of the law. Secondly, why in view of the firm's record did my hon. Friend's Department give a special exemption through the Factory Inspectorate? The company claimed that it was engaged on an export order so there is no special machinery to cover an exemption. This tends to undermine the purpose of the Factory Acts.

Will my hon. Friend tonight give an assurance that the exemption will not be renewed? Finally, will he redefine the criteria which he uses for these exemptions? He will recall that in a letter to me he said he was going further into the matter and I can only assume he must be talking about the criteria for exemptions. The dramatic rise in the number of exemptions since 1967 shows that the criteria have been diminished or diluted, their quality lowered, or that they are being given more freely, or indeed recklessly, on the assumption that the D.E.P. is interested in introducing a new principle on the lines advocated by the C.B.I, and so strongly opposed by the T.U.C.

In conclusion, I hope nobody will imagine that to protect women from exploitation by limiting their right to work in inferior conditions in any way impinges on the principle of equal pay or equality of opportunity. No civilised person would want women to work underground in pits.

Contrary to what the Coventry Telegraph said in a leading article women are not the same as men, and men are not the same as women. Nor can conditions in a factory at night be equated with that under which women work in hospitals, or perhaps even in Parliament.

The economic, social, safety and family objections to the employment of women on night shift are so compelling that I trust that the Minister will make it clear that in the face of trade union objections—and I hope that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend will not on this occasion collide with the trade unions—local, district and national, the Ministry is opposed to night work for women on the basis of the Factories Act, 1961, and will not continue to grant these exemptions.

11.55 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) for giving me the opportunity to share with him my concern about the employment of women on night shift in a factory which, after all, is in my constituency. Like him, I am particularly concerned about the method by which the exemption order under Section 117 of the 1961 Factories Act was granted. Permission for exemption finally came over the telephone. If this is the kind of severity, sincerity and seriousness which is attached to these procedures, I venture to suggest that this merits something more than a telephone call to go ahead. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell my hon. Friend and myself something about the re-examination of these procedures to which he has referred in correspondence with me.

Further to that point, I ask the Minister how crucial was this exemption order for women to work on night shift? We are told that the actual night shift was necessary so that nine women from the twilight shift could be transferred to night shift because an export contract deadline had to be met. It was in these circumstances that permission to go ahead with the night shift was given, over the telephone, on Friday, 21st November to 24th December. Despite the fact that this deadline was so urgent, I am told by the firm that this night shift will come to an end by the end of this week. The exemption order will not be needed for the full time. How serious, then, were the conditions under which it was felt that this order should be granted?

Will my hon. Friend define the terms of Section 117 of the Act under which exemption orders can be granted? The Act provides—and I am sure that my hon. Friend has based his case on this— that women on night shift can be permitted where it is deemed to be in the public interest and where it is thought to be desirable for maintaining or increasing the efficiency of industry. I have been on a few Committees since I came to this House and from the small experience I have gained on some of them I know that phrases like "maintaining or increasing the efficiency of industry" can cover a multitude of things.

Since hearing from my hon. Friend, I am glad that he has been able to tell my hon. Friend and myself that he will re-examine these procedures. Can he tell both my hon. Friend and myself tonight two things about which I have expressed particular concern? I would have thought that at least the Secretary of State herself should examine these exemption orders, as they are made in circumstances where at least 15,000 or 16,000 women are working on night shift. I should have thought that this matter was serious enough to warrant my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State examining each application.

Secondly, will my hon. Friend now say what modifications and improvements his Department is prepared to make to these procedures, so that the feelings of the trade unions concerned can be taken fully into account? Does my hon. Friend know that at a meeting of the Coventry and district shop stewards on Wednesday evening, 3rd December, the idea of women on night shift was rejected unanimously? Feeling on the subject in the trade unions, and particularly among shop stewards, is very strong.

I hope that my hon. Friend will give both of us tonight some reassurance that his Department are willing to take the whole question more seriously, particularly in view of what appears to be a rather serious breach of the Regulations which has been permitted to this firm. A number of trade unionists and trade union branches have pressed me because of their concern on this matter. It is a matter which, I assure my hon. Friend, we in North Warwickshire do not treat lightly. I hope that he will give us some assurance on the subject from the Front Bench.

12.1 a.m.

The question whether women should work at night has recently been and obviously still is the subject 'of lively debate—and it threatens to continue to be the subject of lively debate. It may help the House if, before I come to the details of the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman), I sketch very briefly the general background.

The Factories Act restricts the hours of work of women—but not by any means of all women. Apart from housewives, whose work, we know, goes on to all hours, it does not affect nurses, policewomen, airline stewardesses, laboratory technicians, office workers, farm workers and many others. It does not even cover all women who work in factories. Manageresses are specifically exempt. We estimate that it covers only about one-quarter of all women at work. The rest are already free to work at night if they want to do so.

My hon. Friend reminded the House of the Report published earlier this year of the Working Party set up not by my Department but by the National Joint Advisory Council, which advises my right hon. Friend on industrial matters. That Working Party was set up a few years ago to consider, among other things, whether the restrictions on the hours of work of women are still needed.

I was particularly interested to hear my hon. Friend's comments on the position in the E.E.C., with which, by virtue of his duties, he is particularly familiar. I am grateful to him for telling me that he would raise this point. I studied the Working Party's Report to see its comments on the point. The Working Party, which included three T.U.C. representatives, in its examination of the general problem looked at the practices of the European Economic Community and of other industrial communities, particularly countries in Scandinavia to which my hon. Friend referred. The Working Party noted in paragraph 84 of the Report that although, as he said, night work for women is prohibited in all E.E.C. countries, provision is made for exemption in certain circumstances. In subsequent paragraphs of the Report the Committee noted that Norway and Sweden prohibit night work for women but Denmark not at all. In Australia only New South Wales prohibited night work for women. In the United States and Canada the law varies from Province to Province and State to State. But in all these countries provision is made for exceptions and/or the granting of exemption. In other words the practice, in so far as information is available, seems to vary very little from that of the United Kingdom.

The Working Party's Report was published earlier this year and since then officials of the Department have had tentative exploratory discussions about it with both sides of industry and with women's organisations. My right hon. Friend has herself also had an opportunity of hearing the views of both sides of industry on whether restrictions on women's hours should be continued.

These discussions have revealed wide differences of opinion about the future of restrictions on women's hours and, in particular, over the vexed question of night work. The discussions will continue; and I hope that over time a broader measure of agreement will be reached. Any major change would require legislation, and it would not, therefore, be in order for me to pursue that question now. I am bound to say, however, that my right hon. Friend believes that the disappearance of the special restrictions on women is perhaps an inevitable part of the general and irreversible advance towards complete equality between the sexes, of which the advance towards equal pay is another limb.

But whatever the future may hold, what we have to consider is the situation that exists today. The House will want to be satisfied, and is entitled to be satisfied, that the law as it stands is being faithfully and impartially administered, and that we are exercising our powers of exemption within the law reasonably, responsibly and honestly. How then, do we exercise the power to make special exemption orders under Section 117 of the Act?

The number of women at present allowed to do night work in factories under special exemption orders is about 15,000, which is less than 1 per cent, of the number of women we estimate are covered by the restrictions. Some of the 15,000 are doing night work only for a short period, or perhaps every second or third week. In every single case the women have agreed to work at nights.

An application for a special exemption order is made on a standard form which the employer sends to the district inspector of factories. The form asks for a good deal of detail, and where a night shift is proposed the employer has to say what arrangements are to be made for the women's supervision, what facilities will be available for preparing and taking meals, including early morning hot refreshment where appropriate, and what transport facilities are available where the workers have to travel in the early morning or late evening.

When an employer first applies for an order a factory inspector visits the premises and investigates the circumstances. He completes a detailed report, including his comments on the supervision, refreshment, and transport arrangements, the results of his consultations, and his recommendation whether an exemption order should be made. He sends the application form with his report to my Department's Headquarters, where the final decision is taken.

The Act does not specify who had to be consulted before making an exemption order. All it says is that the order may be made after such consultations as the Secretary of State may think appropriate. However, we have given precise instructions to factory inspectors, and I do not think I can do better than quote them verbatim. They say that when investigating a first application,
"During his visit to the factory the Inspector should obtain the views of the workers concerned about the scheme of hours proposed. Where the workers are not members of any union a representative number of the employees should be consulted. Where any of them are union members the inspector, in addition to consulting the workers, should also seek the views of the union representative at the works. If there is no union representative, or if he is not available, the inspector should use his discretion as to whether to consult the local branch secretary, but where a substantial proportion of the workpeople concerned are members of a trade union, a representative of the union at factory or higher level should always be consulted."
In the Shuresta case none of the nine women concerned was a member of a union, but, nonetheless, the inspector consulted the district secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers by telephone. He had also seen the A.E.F. night shop steward and obtained his views, too. In his report to headquarters the inspector referred to the fact that the union opposed the application on the ground that the work ought to be given to men.

It is very seldom that a trade union opposes an application for an exemption order permitting night work for women. It does not follow, of course, that when it does object, the objection, regardless of its merits, must be regarded as an automatic bar to the making of an exemption order. A trade union's objection might well be decisive if, for instance, it were based upon the safety, health and welfare of the women at work or brought into question their willingness to do the work.

However, very occasionally a trade union objects on grounds which we do not feel can be accepted—and obviously the ultimate responsibility for the decision on the application must remain with the Secretary of State. If it happens that a decision is taken contrary to the trade union's views, this certainly does not mean that the union's views have been "ignored"; on the contrary, the Department always considers unions' views most sympathetically and carefully.

It may be helpful if I outline some of the considerations which we have in mind in such cases as this. In our view, given that an exemption order fulfils the statutory condition of being
"…desirable in the public interest for the purpose of maintaining or improving the efficiency of industry or transport…".
the order should be granted, unless good cause for refusing it is shown. Anything in the working conditions prejudicial to the women's safety, health or welfare would be good cause for refusing the order; so also would unwillingness on the part of women.

On the other hand, a contention that men should be given preference at night for work women were doing during the day would not be regarded as good cause for refusing the exemption. In short, we set out to see that the restrictions are used only for the protection of women and not as a means of discriminating against them.

Shuresta Ltd.'s cycle stand assembly department was under pressure to meet a contract deadline for 24th December, mainly for export work. The firm invited women normally employed on a part-time evening shift to volunteer for full night shifts, on the same work as they had normally been doing. Nine women volunteered. Four of them are what is described as chrome jiggers; before small components can be chromium plated, they must be suspended from small pieces of wire, bent into the form of hooks and suspended in the chrome plating vat. This is a simple, unskilled job, but one which needs nimble fingers. No training is required, other than watching someone doing the job for a few minutes. It is a process also carried out in other parts of industry, and the factory inspectors concerned saw it performed only by women.

The other five women were assembling bicycle stands by hand; this also included spells of working a hand-operated rivetting machine. Though this work is semi-skilled, nimble fingers and a light touch are essential and this work in this factory is always done by women.

Our information is that the employer started this women's night shift on Monday, 3rd November, though he had not applied for an exemption order. The Coventry district secretary of the A.E.F. telephoned the district inspector of factories about it on Monday, 10th November, whereupon the district inspector investigated the matter. A factory inspector visited the firm's premises at 11 p.m. on Thursday, 13th November, and was there until 1 a.m. He saw nine women at work and, having in mind the possibility of prosecution, took written statements from each of them. He saw the night foreman and, in moving about the factory, noticed that men were employed elsewhere in the factory that night.

In their statements, the women said that they were satisfied with the welfare conditions and with the spells of work and breaks for meals and rest. There was no transport problem, the women using three of their own cars. The factory inspector reported to his district inspector that morning, Friday 14th November. The district inspector contacted the works director and the two inspectors told him that the night work was illegal and that he must have it stopped immediately, and that there was a possibility of prosecution. The works director then explained the importance of the work and the deadline of 24th December. The district inspector said that if he wished to continue the night shifts, he must apply for an exemption order.

It was decided that the circumstances were not appropriate for prosecution. The inspectorate had no knowledge of any previous illegal employment of women at night by this firm. On the same day, Friday 14th November, the district inspector posted the application and other relevant forms to the works director and the district inspector visited the factory at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 18th November.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in a letter from the district inspector of the A.E.F. he spoke of women having been employed by this firm 16 months previously and said that he had contacted the local factory inspector and had asked that the women should be withdrawn? An investigation took place and they were withdrawn.

We have no knowledge of any previous illegal employment of women at night by this firm.

In view of the shortness of time, it might help if I concluded by saying that this case has received a great deal of publicity. Apart from a series of Questions in this House and this debate, there has been much publicity in the local Press, while my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), in whose constituency the factory is situated, has appeared on radio and on television with one of the nine women concerned.

I feel compelled to point out that several of these night work orders—fresh applications or renewals—are made every week, but I do not think that the light of publicity has shone so closely on any of them before. When I began my investigations into the representations made by my hon. Friends, I was quite prepared to find that the procedure was in need of overhaul—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order,

Adjourned at a quarter-past Twelve o'clock.