Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organising among Poor Women in the Third World and the First

By Sheila Rowbotham; Swasti Mitter | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Strategies against sweated work in Britain, 1820-1920

Sheila Rowbotham


ABSTRACT

In the nineteenth century terms like 'slop-work' and 'sweating' were used to describe a system of subcontracting and low-paid, unorganised forms of employment characteristic of industries like clothing where a pool of cheap labour combined with high urban rents and markets which required flexibility in production methods. The sweating system developed both out of decayed handicrafts and alongside factory production. It was labour-intensive work in which there was little incentive to mechanise.

Sheila Rowbotham draws on material from Britain to show the range of strategies adopted in opposing sweating in the period 1820-1920. By the early twentieth century the campaigners against sweating, who saw it as not only exploitative but retrogressive, were able to secure laws to fix rates in several low-paid industries. The case for abolishing homework was often linked to welfare policies concerned to improve the health of mothers. Though some reformers combined state measures with attempts to organise sweated women workers, the emphasis came to be placed upon regulation by the state.


INTRODUCTION

The 1980s growth of casualised employment in the British economy coincided with a shift in prevailing economic theories and policies. Broadly, from the late nineteenth century, working conditions had become increasingly regulated by law and by recognised trade unionism. An influential lobby among employers had accepted a regulated economy on the grounds that official trade unionism and negotiated settlements were less disruptive than unofficial militancy. During the 1980s, this was to be challenged and the advantages of a 'flexible' workforce stressed. Right-wing arguments for flexibility have stressed the need to cut labour costs in order to be competitive. But 'flexibility' also found left-wing advocates who saw a shift from large-scale factories on the Fordist model to a post-Fordist organisation of production as creating liberatory 'new times' for workers released from the discipline of Taylorism. They tended to slide from a description

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