Their Factory Act in the late 19th Century

From the old Dundee Year Books of the 19th Century

 

The Factory Act for Indian mills passed in 1881, and modified in 1891, is in. its way a curiosity of legislative literature. In nothing is the force of public opinion more manifest than in the factory legislation of Great Britain. Slavery itself has had its advocates. The employers, we used to be told, would not abuse their power. But it would seem that the moment irresponsible authority passes into the hands of any man, there is truly little security for the protection of de­fenceless women and little children. The Factory Act of India gives no real protec­tion to any class of workers. The first section deals with the title and interpretation clauses, and a factory is defined to mean "any premises where notless than 50 persons are employed," Section II. deals with the appointment of inspectors and certifying surgeons. The whole hinge of the Bill is the District Magistrate. He is, in virtue of his office inspector of all factories in his District. Instead of having men independent of all office, whose business it is to see that the Act such as it is, is enforced, the whole of the law may be a dead letter.

The position and the duties of certifying surgeon at home are indefinite enough. The doctor when he certifies the age of the children ought to visit the rooms in which they are to work, observe them as they do work, and see that the sanitary arrangements are in good order. The certifying surgeon passes the children when they are nine years old to work six hours, and when fourteen to work as full-timers. If properly wrought 'this is in some respects better than our Factory Act. But there is no half-time schooling prescribed as essential. If a half-time school with Government supervision were appointed, the children would work according to the shift system in India, only four hours in any one day, and secure a good education at the same time. This we know promotes the health and welfare of this class of children. But there is no such provision. In their defence the law should be altered so as to prevent any child under 14 from working at all, or should enact that children between 9 and 14 shall work only four hours, and that on condition that they attend a certificated teachers' Government-inspected school. As the Act is wrought in India to-day there is practically no real supervision of these defenceless children; and were it not for the humanity and high character of most of the men who manage Indian mills their con­dition would be worse than it is now. So far as the Act protects them it is worthless.

Regarding Section VI., which deals with the employment of women, it is equally unsatisfactory. First of all, it allows 11 hours a day. The Scotch Act practically limits the day to 10 hours. Then a woman may be employed between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. This is to enable the shift system to be wrought. Then, note that only one and a half hour of rest is enacted in an 11hour day. More important even, from a medical point of view, than the length of the day is the length of the spell or darg. This has been found the serious drawback in working the nine hours' system. All practical men know that the long spell from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. in Scotland now tells severely on the health of tender girls. For this reason the full-time age of girls should be raised in Scotland to 14. Girls cannot work two spells of 4½ hours without doing themselves serious harm.

In the Indian mills there is no provision for any definite spell or darg. Many of the women are practically, if not actively, employed hanging on to the work from dawn to sundown. If the shift system en­abled them to have two spells of 3½ hours each, and then get done for the day, so that there would be time for home life and for social and family enjoyment, the system would have something to say for itself. The fact is, the working women in Indian mills have no real end to their day's work till the engine is stopped, nor are they disengaged for the day till the long task is done.

But Section 18 of the Indian Act renders the whole Act worthless. By giving notice to the Governor-General, which means the District Magistrate, he can and does render the whole Act a dead letter. One large work has already, after working by the usual shift system the usual long day, begun to work eight hours more by night, and that in face of the Act which says "no woman shall be employed after eight o'clock at night nor before five in the morning." By a stroke of the pen the District Inspector can render the most vital clauses of the Act entirely valueless.

The objections to the Act may thus be summed up briefly. There is, first of all, no security that the children are educated. There are no proper short spells of work defined. There is no provision that the early shift, which has started at, say, five o'clock, shall not be kept dragging off and on till eight at night. There is no security for home or social life, no time sacred for home duties. There is no real inspection. To work a shift system at all requires extra supervision. In India the supervision is a pure sham. There is no guarantee of sanitary inspection. There is power left in the hands of the District Magistrate to allow night work, and practically to abrogate all or any incon­venient clause in the Act.

Mention these things and you are told that millowners here only desire to hamper the Indian mills. The working people here are much more interested than the mill-owners, who can and do quickly transfer their capital to India, and try to get divi­dends there. There is a reasonableness in the demand of our people that the competition should be fair, .and that the lives of Indian operatives—their health and home life—should not be all disregarded, and flung in to make a dividend. There is a clamour, too, that India should be governed, not in the interest of England or Scotland, but in the interest of Indian peoples. Very well, let it be so. The best and most humane men connected with the practical working of jute mills in India are unanimous in favour of the British Factory Act being extended to India. If this is nofc done, night work, with all its demoralising train of evils, will become universal. The strain on European management, great enough already, will become intolerable. The present system is not wrought on be­half of the Indian people, but to make dividends to the shareholders, who are living snugly at home in Scotland. The clamour about Indian, peoples and their rights is all pretence.

Perhaps I may be permitted to add that the best-informed and ablest mill men in India assure me that they not only earnestly desire a real Factory Act on British lines, but, so far from being afraid of it, they feel assured that it would not diminish the dividends of the mill-owners, but would increase them. They feel also that a real Factory Act, with real inspection, would save the whole trade from the horrid spectre of night work, and tend directly and quickly to improve the condition and promote the welfare of the patient and kindly Indian people, who in dumb silence plod on without a real defender, or proper barrier against the cupidity of eager and competing capitalists.

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