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DIFFERENT METHODS OF HIRING LABOURERS.
cessary, in the view of preventing the labourers from overworking themselves, to limit the sums which they could earn in a given time. But this ultra zeal is not manifested, except in the case of parties engaged for a short period only, or when they first begin to work under the system. Regular task-work labourers, though distinguished by their industry. and perseverance, do not overwork themselves. They are, also, much more their own masters than those engaged for certain terms. They are, in truth, contractors as well as labourers. And provided they execute their work within the term stipulated (if such stipulation be made), they may choose their own time for working, and begin and leave off when they please.
Piece work is also by far the most likely, if it be not the only means by which the mere labourer can expect to advance himself to a higher station. A man undertakes to cut down corn at so much an acre, to make roads and drains at so much a rood, to weave cloth at so much a yard, in short, to execute a certain amount of work for a certain price. Sometimes he restricts his undertaking to what he thinks he can execute himself, with perhaps the assistance of his family. But whether he do this, or employ others (sometimes in the way of sub-contractors) to assist him, it is his object to finish his task as expeditiously as possible, and to employ his profits as a means of extending his business. In this way he gradually ises in the scale of society, till, having ceased to work with his own hands, he becomes a contractor on a large scale, or engages in some other occupation. And it is plain that the training and experience he has had, and the habits he has formed, must make him at once a vigilant and a discerning master. The foundations of thousands of middling, and of very many large fortunes, have been laid in the way now stated. It is, in truth, the broadest, the easiest, and the safest of the various channels by which diligent, sagacious, and frugal individuals emerge from poverty, and attain to respectability and opulence. Those who thus rise to distinction may be emphatically said to be the architects of
their own fortunes. They owe nothing to interest, to favour, or to any unworthy means. They stood originally on the same level with their fellow-workmen, and they owe their elevation to the judicious exercise of talents common to them all.
There cannot, therefore, as it appears to us, be any reasonable doubt that the introduction of the practice of piece-work, or of hiring by the job, has been, and that its further extension would be, a great advantage to all classes, but especially to the labourers. It appears to be the only plan by which a man's earnings are not only made to depend upon, but are exactly proportioned to his labour, skill, and ingenuity; while it has the further advantage of enabling prudent and enterprising individuals to advance themselves, by comparatively easy steps, to a superior condition, and, in the end, to merge the character of labourer in that of employer.
It has sometimes been said, that it would be good policy to endeavour to interest labourers in the zealous prosecution of the task in which they may be engaged, by making their wages depend, in part at least, on the result of their exertions. But except in a few limited and peculiar cases, this could not be done. The wages of sailors may be, and indeed usually are, made to depend on the successful termination of the voyage. But how could the wages of the work-people employed on a farm, in a foundry, or in a cotton-mill, be made to depend on the result of such speculative undertakings? Very frequently, however, the workpeople now referred to, are paid by the piece; and, when such is the case, they have a plain and tangible motive, level to their capacities, and not depending on anything remote or contingent, to make every exertion.
But, though the practical difficulties in the way of making the wages of labourers dependent on the results of the employments in which they are engaged, were less formidable than they appear to be, we should not, in the great majority of cases, anticipate any advantages from the scheme being
DIFFERENT METHODS OF HIRING LABOURERS.
adopted. On the contrary, the presumption is, that it would be injurious. If labourers are to participate in the advantages of successful enterprises, they must also participate in the losses resulting from those of a contrary description; and must, consequently, in cases of failure, be deprived of their accustomed and necessary means of subsistence. The hazard to which they would thus be exposed, might, it is true, be lessened by making a part only of their remuneration depend on the issue of the enterprise. But if it were really an advantage to be allowed to participate in a chance of this sort, the fixed portion of their wages would be proportionally diminished, and at every failure of an enterprise, the labourers engaged in it would be thrown upon the work-house, or on the contributions of the benevolent. It is nugatory to suppose that the condition of the poor should be improved by their engaging in such uncertain projects. Security, and a reward proportioned to their deserts, conduce most to their well-being. And these, we have seen, are enjoyed in the highest degree by the piece-work labourers. They are nowise dependent on the seasons, or on any one of the thousand unforeseen contingencies that may occur to defeat the most carefully conducted industrious speculation. They depend on themselves only; and being sure of a commensurate return, they invariably put forth all their energies.
It is further obvious that if work-people are to be interested in the result of an undertaking, they must have some control over its conduct, and be authorized to inquire into the accounts and proceedings of those by whom the undertaking is managed. All the advantages of individual enterprise and responsibility would, in consequence, be lost, and the most necessary and judicious steps, in the conduct of a business, might be objected to or censured by those most incompetent to form a judgment upon such matters. At present, when a capitalist engages in any undertaking, he knows beforehand that he will reap all the advantage if it be successful, and that, if otherwise, he will have to bear all the loss. He is consequently determined, by the most powerful
motives, to act discreetly, to proscribe all useless expense, and to avail himself of every means or incident that may present itself, to facilitate his projects. Except in a very few cases, all industrious undertakings are sure to be carried on most efficiently and economically by individuals. But of all sorts of interference, that of the workmen would be most objectionable. It would hardly, indeed, be more absurd for a general to take the opinion of the privates of his army on questions of strategy, than it would be for a capitalist to call his labourers to his councils, and mould them according to their opinions.
Law for repressing Combinations among Workmen repealed in 1824-Impolicy of that Law-Its real effect-Voluntary, Combinations should not be forcibly suppressed-Such combinations are often injurious to the Workmen-Necessity for preventing one set of Workmen from obstructing others in their Employments.
BESIDES the causes of variations in the rate of wages, specified in Chapter V., they are supposed to be materially affected by the strikes and combinations which frequently exist among workmen ; and as this is a subject of much importance, and with respect to which there is a considerable difference of opinion, we shall shortly examine it.
It was the practice of the legislature, subsequently to the reign of Edward I., to interfere respecting the stipulations in the contract of wages between masters and servants. And, its deliberations being in most cases guided by the advice of the masters, it was natural that it should interfere, rather to promote their particular interests, than that it might treat both parties with the same even-handed and impartial justice. But the gradual though slow dissemina
tion of sounder and more enlarged principles of public economy having impressed all classes with a conviction of the general impolicy of such interference, it was latterly but rarely practised. The experience of nearly five hundred years has shown that, while every attempt to set a maximum on the price of labour is oppressive and injurious to the workmen, it is of no real advantage to their employers; for it has been found that workmen have invariably become more persevering, sober, and industrious, according as their freedom has been extended, and as they have been relieved from the vexatious restraints to which they were formerly subjected.
But though the legislature had long ceased to dictate the precise terms on which masters should buy and workmen sell their labour, a set of laws were of late much extended, and were very frequently acted upon, by which workmen were severely punished for combining together to raise their wages, or to oppose their reduction. These laws, which were in no ordinary degree partial and unjust, had their origin in a dark and barbarous period. The dreadful plague that desolated England, in common with most other countries of Europe, in 1348 and 1349, having destroyed great numbers of the labouring poor, a greater competition took place for the services of those who survived, who, in consequence, obtained much higher wages.' Parliament, however, instead of leaving this temporary rise of wages, to which the poor had an unquestionable right, to be modified by the increase of population it would have occasioned, passed, in 1350, the famous act (25 Edward III., c. 1) for regulating wages. By this statute, labourers were obliged to serve for such wages as were common in the districts in which they resided previously to the pestilence. But, as this gave rise to a great deal of cavilling, a statute was passed two years after, fixing the specific amount of the wages to be given to reapers, mowers, haymakers, thrashers, &c., and to the more common and important classes of artificers.
1 See ante, p. 21.
A variety of subsequent
2 See the Rates in Sir F. M. Eden's State of the Poor, vol. i. p. 33.