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,
(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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.