Union Privilege v. Workers' Rights

My Mother Was an Outworker

Lorraine Elliott, MLA

The title of my address is drawn from my speech on the so-called Fair Employment Bill in the Legislative Assembly on November 10th 2000. In response to some fairly vigorous sledging from the Government benches, I referred to the fact that my mother, when I was a small child, worked at home sewing furs for a refugee furrier from Czechoslovakia.

Fur clung to every surface in our house and the fur machine was part of the furniture. The wearing of furs has been condemned by the politically correct but my 82-year-old mother, if she gets the chance, will still examine the seams of a fur jacket or coat to see if it has been properly sewn.

For my 21st birthday the man we came to know as Uncle Ralph gave me a mink jacket. The relationship between him, his wife Ilsa and my family, my father, my mother, my brother and me went far beyond exploiting employer and exploited outworker.

Ralph and Ilsa were childless and they lavished affection and gifts on my brother and me and regularly visited us long after my mother had ceased to sew furs.

Ralph is dead but I trust his soul rests in peace.

He made it possible for my mother to work at home, to care for her children and to earn enough to supplement what my father was able to earn working first as a travelling book salesman, then as a tally clerk on the wharves.

The money enabled them to plan for a future which included what they both wanted for their children---a good education.

If I sound like Pollyanna, in that same speech in parliament I also said that outworkers deserved protection and an improvement in their working conditions WHERE they were being exploited.

To reinforce that statement, I asked the parliamentary library service to do some research on the history of outwork and outworkers. This is what I learned...

Firstly, under the Bill proposed by Labor, but defeated by the Opposition in the Upper House, an outworker meant a person engaged, for someone else's industry, in or about a private residence or other premises not necessarily business or commercial premises, to

(a) pack, process, or work on articles or material; or

(b) carry out clerical work.

Furthermore, in the Bill, an employee meant:

(a) a person employed in any industry on wages, piecework rates, commission or other remuneration; or

(b) a person whose usual occupation is that of an employee in an industry; or

(c) a person who is a member of a class of persons declared to be employees under section 6; or

(d) an outworker; or

(e) an apprentice or trainee.

(2) A person is not prevented from being an employee only because

(a) the person is working under a contract for labour only, or substantially for labour only; or

(b) the person works part-time or on a casual basis; or

(c) the person is a lessee of tools or other implements of production, or of a vehicle used to deliver goods; or

(d) the person owns, wholly or partly, a vehicle used to transport goods or passengers.

I am now going to quote extensively from a paper delivered by Todd Pugatch at the Nike seminar on April 30, 1998.

Pugatch claimed that the historical development of what he called the sweatshop could be traced to the emerging textile industry of England, New England, and New York in the 1840s. Prior to 1850, the Massachusetts textile industry employed more homeworkers than factory workers, engaging a largely rural population in non-agricultural labour, many for the first time, he said.

The seemingly unlimited supply of rural labourers and low cost of entry for firms made homework common and opened the system to exploitation. 'It is by no means the case that all homework is sweated,' wrote British labour advocate Clementina Black in 1907.

Homework created the first system of subcontract, by erecting a three-tiered structure with manufacturers, who purchased the materials, at the top, workers who produced for piece rates in their homes at the bottom, and subcontractors in between.

The outwork system represented a significant development in relations between labour and capital.

As the 19th century progressed, work moved slowly out of the home and into the factory.

The persistence of abundant supplies of labour in the countryside allowed outwork to continue, but by the early 20th century, the rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization caused the factory system to replace outwork as the dominant mode of production.

Pugatch says New Deal industrial regulations and the ascendant strength of unions in the US in the 1930s did not completely eradicate the sweatshop, but were relatively successful in pushing sweatshops to the margins of society.

A key factor was the establishment of 'joint liability', which held a manufacturer responsible for the wages and conditions of its subcontractors. The prohibition of industrial homework in the 1940s caused the further decline of outwork, as did the establishment of the 40-hour workweek in 1940.

Still, high unemployment of the Depression led many to accept employment under almost any conditions.

Southern textile workers complained that employers were routinely violating the Code of Fair Compensation, which prohibited child labour, established a 40-hour workweek, and set a minimum wage for the industry. So clearly there has been a history of some exploitation.

In the Current Affairs Bulletin of August--September 1999, Elizabeth van Acker of the School of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University, cited a Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia report which claimed that 300,000 outworkers were working in substandard conditions with below-award wages.

Production, the report claimed, had moved from factories to private homes over the previous five years so that for every factory machinist there were now 14 working from home. The report claimed that most outworkers were isolated and highly exploited with a typical working day of 12 to 18 hours, seven days a week.

It also claimed that they were paid about one-third of the award rate and had no access to minimum conditions of factory workers. Between 80% and 90% of these workers were migrant women who had been living in Australia for less than five years.

As you would expect, everything the parliamentary library researchers were able to find gave a bleak, left-wing oriented view of outworkers, their conditions, rates of pay and their exploitative employers.

The one consistent theme was that these workers had work! There is, despite the paucity of writing on the subject, another view. If I may, I will revert to personal anecdote. I was invited by the Jewish Museum of Australia to the opening of a new exhibition called Schmatte Business---Jews in the Garment Trade.

Re-enter my mother.

After her experiences as an outworker in the fur industry, and my father's as a tally clerk, they joined forces, helped by the money they had saved, to open a retail business in Ashburton. From primary school onwards, during school holidays, I ranged with my mother in and out of the warehouses of Flinders Lane looking for a blue SSW twin-set for Mrs Smith and the right quantity and colour of stockings for Mrs Jones.

How familiar I became with the Flinders Lane names---Leon Haskin, Prestige, Kolotex, Berlei and Leon Worth, with lunch in Myer's cafeteria a treat to follow.

So, when I took my mother to the opening of Schmatte Business by a daughter of Marc Besen of Sussan, a world which has largely disappeared came to life again.

In the Age magazine of February 17, a former machinist recalled the working conditions in the 1950s. 'You have to imagine what it was like. It was a very dark world. You had a light where you worked, but if you got up to go to the toilet it was always dark. The toilets were horrible. Nobody ever cleaned them. There was no towel. Just a rag. But you accepted it. It was a very happy time.'

Another described her Polish-Jewish boss taking in Holocaust survivors. They sat in groups and talked their own language and ate in a way that she was not used to. A lot of them were sick. The Lane and its industry gave them a new chance.

Columnist Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun on March 5 (Andrew is becoming the bete noir of the Left) said 'Something is off when the Bracks Government's plans to save outworkers from exploitation has those outworkers scared witless.'

The point of his article was that the Fair Employment Bill would turf hundreds of the most vulnerable workers out of employment and that many of those clothing manufacturers who had rushed to join the Fairwear campaign (which also has become very politically correct) have in fact shifted most of their manufacturing jobs overseas, where presumably workers in Asia are working for lower rates than Cambodian-Australians in Springvale.

Andrew Bolt also pointed out that many of the migrant workers have as their employers people of their own ethnic background. Cambodian-Australians were working for Cambodians, Vietnamese for Vietnamese. And he said that the first priority of these outworker parents was the education of their children. Some things remain constant.

The Australian clothing industry is in deep trouble. Bradmill has collapsed. We have lost iconic brand names like Pelaco. The politically-correct are vocal about the supposed evils of globalisation, yet if Australian manufacturing is to survive, particularly in the clothing, textile and footwear industries, it has to remain competitive. And that depends on a supply of affordable labour.

The public will not buy Australian if the product competition from overseas is of similar quality and cheaper. Even New Zealand is flooding our markets with fashionable clothes at reasonable cost. The chain stores like Fosseys and Target are full of goods produced in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Many in Victoria's immigrant community, as Andrew Bolt points out, are happy to put their feet on the first rung of the employment ladder through outwork. If this were not so, they would go on unemployment benefits. This is probably the most telling argument of all.

If Andrew Bolt is correct, and he interviewed many outworkers, what they fear is not their bosses, but the unions who want to force them to work on hourly rates instead of piece work. Some of Victoria's most prominent professionals in the fields of law, medicine and business are the children of immigrant outworkers and factory workers.

On March 14, Tony Abbott, the Federal Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, announced that the Federal Government would move to protect the single system of workplace relations applying in Victoria.

A specific Bill will be introduced into Federal Parliament to, among other provisions, improve compliance and enforcement arrangements for outworkers in the clothing, textile and footwear industry in Victoria and their access to enforceable minimum rates of pay.

If, as the Bracks Labor Government has claimed, the Fair Employment Bill's main purpose was to protect outworkers, then it would have been redundant. In reality, the thrust of the Bill was to give unions unprecedented powers in almost inverse proportion to their declining numbers.

Under the Bill, union officials could have entered any workplace, interviewed any worker and photocopied any records. No wonder Bolt reported one outworker looking nervously over his shoulder at Bolt and asking 'Union man?'

It is unfortunate that the leaders of the Uniting, Catholic and Anglican churches took such a partisan view of this legislation. They were in grave danger of becoming a cheer squad for the ALP.

Andrew Bolt, for instance, dismissed claims of outworkers he visited being paid only $2 an hour. If it were true, why wouldn't those workers go on the dole instead, he asked.

The Reverend David Pargeter, director of World Mission and Social Justice of the Uniting Church in Victoria, in a My Say column in the Herald Sun, in response to Andrew Bolt, mentioned children he said he knew had been denied school excursions. But Bolt referred to parents who made sure their children went to university before setting out to get a big house.

Mr Pargeter's mission asked all Uniting Church members to identify any company refusing to work with the Fairwear campaign. Church members are also asked to report back to the mission the identity of the companies using offshore workers and the country in which the clothes were made.

After reading all this in the latest edition of Crosslight, the Uniting Church's newspaper, memories of studying Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter came to mind.

The church ran a website which listed companies which refused to sign the Homeworkers Code of Practice, outing them by name. It is not surprising to know that Mr Pargeter boasts that the whole Fairwear campaign is based in the synod office of the Uniting Church in Melbourne. One can only wonder how much church money might be spent by this tax-free church meddling in industrial affairs.

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union must be laughing.

The Fair Employment Bill was a Trojan horse pulled by outworkers but concealing rapacious unions who appear to care less about loss of jobs than about their own power and prestige.

None of this should be taken to imply that I think any workers should be exploited or pushed beyond endurance. Australians generally believe in a fair go and minimum working conditions. The Federal Government has recognised this and moved to legislate for fair minimum standards for outworkers.

There was no reason for a separate state system with Gestapo-like powers for unions.

Labor governments owe much to the unions. Labor governments are always called on to deliver. Most migrant workers would rather have an outwork job than no job.

That would certainly have applied to my mother. Her and my father's efforts to remain independent and self-supporting are the reason that I am a Liberal. I am grateful for it.