The Sweating System
Workers' Republic, 3 June 1899

We are unfeignedly glad to see the members of the tailoring trade in Dublin bestirring themselves to put an end to the sweating system in connection with that industry. Unfortunately in a great many of our most important trades any discontent which exists is too often attributed to merely imaginary causes, and the money and energy of the workers frittered away in a foolish effort to win the co-operation of the employers in an attempt to better the condition of Labour.

In this move of the tailoring craft, however, there are to be found the tokens of a recognition on the part of the men that, from whatever quarter assistance may voluntarily come, from the side of the masters nothing can be hoped for, - except by pressure of the Union on the one hand or the threat of withdrawal of custom on the other. This fact helps to clear the air and will, no doubt, be highly beneficial to the men in so far as it will serve to solidify their ranks and compel them to realise that it is only by the financial and moral strength of their organisation they can hope to achieve success, and not at all by any reliance upon the goodwill of employers.

For the benefit of the general public we may here set down some of the principal factors in the dispute alluded to. The central grievance upon which attention is directed, if not the only one at present, lies in the employment of what are known as "outworkers". Such outworkers are men or women for whom the employer provides no workshop or other facilities, but who execute at home whatever work they receive. This system has a double disadvantage for those workers who work only in the shop, or as it is technically termed, on "the board". In the first place, it makes impossible any effective supervision of the conditions under which the work is performed - and thus opens the way for all manner of inroads on the "log", or price list, and provides the employing class with a reserve of unorganised labour continually competing with the organised workers, and continually offering facilities to the employer in his struggles with his workmen. In the second place, whereas the regular union worker can only work for one employer at a time, and must take all chances incidental to the fluctuations of that employer's business, the outworkers can serve two or three firms at once and thus assure themselves of work, if not from one, then from the other. The result being that the union worker, having insecurity of employment to reckon with, must necessarily seek for such a rate of wages as will counterbalance such insecurity, but the outworkers having greater facilities for procuring work can, and do, accept lower wages. Add to this the fact that even if both sections of workers got the same wages IN CASH yet, owing to their peculiar circumstances, the outworkers would be the less costly to the employer as they would be providing their own workshop, fires, etc. Under such conditions it is no wonder that the regularly organised members of the tailoring craft regard the existence of the outworking, or sweating, system as a danger to their best interests. Indeed it were a wonder were it otherwise, for the facts herein set forth give but the faintest outline of the evils contained in the system of outworking. For instance the fact of such work being performed within the small compass of a working-class "home" is fatal to the health of those employed upon it, and engenders fever and other contagious diseases which, through the medium of the garments, are spread throughout the entire community. Then, like all other "home" work, it invariably leads to female and child labour - all the members of the family being pressed into the service. Thus a crop of evils of the most serious nature are fostered by this system of sweating against which our friends of the tailoring craft are now arrayed.

But what of the remedy? We might, were we so minded, placidly - and quite correctly - point out to our tailoring friends that the only remedy is Socialism, that nothing short of the public ownership and democratic control of the means of life will finally rid them of their industrial troubles; that sweating is but the natural child of Capitalism, and that to get rid of the one you must abolish the other. But this is not our attitude, nor is it the attitude of the scientific Socialist wherever he is found. Socialism is indeed the only permanent remedy, but Socialists seek for a mitigation of present evils even whilst pressing for the abolition of the source from whence they sprung. Indeed, Socialists are the most imperative of all in agitating for immediate reforms because we know that no measure of relief to the cause of Labour is to-day possible, which does not carry within it the germ of Socialist principles - is not in a greater or less degree an application to industrial life of the Socialist idea. Thus the only radical and effective remedy for the evils of sweating, viz the entire suppression of outworking, is perhaps too herculean a task for mere trade-union effort to accomplish, but lies well within the range of what the workers might accomplish by political action as a class. And as the regulation of industrial activity by the workers themselves, instead of by a dominant class, is the very essence of the Socialist conception so even that partial application of the principle which would be shown in the spectacle of working-class representatives in the House of Commons forcing this upon the employers, lies along those lines of progress we desire to travel. We would advise our friends to study that fact well, and then ask themselves why it is that our Home Rule representatives, so ready to serve the class interests of the tenant farmers, are so utterly indifferent to the class interests of the town workers.

Meanwhile in every effort their union may make towards abolishing the evils of sweating, the tailoring trade can count upon our heartiest co-operation.

Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.
Original Transcription by Einde O'Callaghan for the James Connolly Internet Archive.

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