WORK AND WOMEN, BRITAIN, 1895–1905
MINIMUM WAGE POLICY in Britain became law in the Trade Boards Act of 1909. Officials of the Board of Trade, the national government department responsible, could apply the act to any industry, provided they were “satisfied that the rate of wages prevailing in any branch of the trade is exceptionally low, as compared with that in other employments, and that the other circumstances of the trade are such as to render the application of this Act to the trade expedient.” 1 These “other circumstances” were limited by a promise to Parliament, to “exceptional cases where two fundamental conditions are absent … the mobility of labour in its true sense and effective organisation, ” in other words, to trades where low pay, a work force trapped by its circumstances, and no unions existed. 2
The act specified procedures for setting up a Trade Board (a locally or industrially based commission) for each designated industry. Representatives of employers and workers, nominated or elected, would be joined by members appointed by the department, who must be less than half the board. Women were “eligible as members of Trade Boards as well as men, ” and home workers must be directly represented if they formed a “considerable proportion” of the trade. For trades “in which women are largely employed, ” one board member must be a woman. A professional secretary to each board, and staff appointed centrally, would investigate conditions and enforce decisions, backed by legal powers and criminal sanctions. This elaborate structure was designed to produce orders setting “minimum rates of wages for timework for their trades” and, if necessary, also for piecework, “to apply either universally, or to any special process, or to any special class of worker, or to any special area.” The act listed circumstances justifying special rates and appeals and created procedures for implementing the rates.
Dealing with every last point of procedure, the Trade Boards Act was mysteriously silent on major points of substance. The gender-neutral term low-paid workers left to boards to decide whether this meant low-paid women workers. No criteria for setting a monetary value for a minimum wage were specified. Boards were thus delegated great scope for initiative, but they did not have the last word. Another elaborate procedure referred all decisions back up the administrative chain and ultimately to Parliament for ratification. In fact, no decision was ever final. Individual orders and whole boards could be rescinded or abolished if their circumstances changed.