Is this work or slavery?

Image by ODT.
Image by ODT.

The Dunedin Branch of the National Council of Women this year established an essay competition honouring Dawn Ibbotson, a long-time member, on the theme of ''Women and Work - No Barriers?''. All Otago secondary school pupils in years 11 and 12 were eligible to enter. The first prize of $500, for this essay, was awarded to EleanorO'Neill, of Columba College.

''Sweated labour'' or just ''sweating'' was described in 1898 as ''a condition of labour in which a maximum amount of work in a given time is performed for a minimum wage, and in which the ordinary rules of health and comfort are disregarded''.

These atrocious conditions were common in New Zealand as well as post-Industrial-Revolution Britain.

In 1888, the exposure of exploitation among Dunedin seamstresses resulted in recognition of the need for equal pay and the enfranchisement of women.

Together with the formation of the first women's union in New Zealand, it made people think about women's place in the workforce.

Thus, the scandal helped break down barriers for working women.

Because of the awful working conditions, many British people emigrated to Australia and New Zealand in search of a better life.

The 1860s gold rush made Dunedin a rich town and Otago the country's most populous and prosperous region.

This large, isolated population needed to produce its own goods in its own factories, but the conditions the emigrants had sought to escape unfortunately reappeared.

Numerous workers had once again to ''sweat'' for their survival.

Many women and girls worked in clothing factories to support their families.

They faced exploitation due to the social views of the time, which, along with the ''inordinate craving for cheapness'' barred them from having a decent job.

As Victorian women were (ideally) submissive and inferior to men, they rarely questioned their (usually male) employers.

I'm glad that I do not live in a culture where that stigma is the norm.

It was also deemed unnecessary for women to be paid as much as men, regardless of their actual work, since they were not, typically, the family's breadwinner.

An Otago Daily Times cartoon of 1888 illustrates how family income often depended upon women - for instance, because of an invalid husband.

Working ''as hard as she will, she can only make 4d a day'' (about $3.70), like wages in some Asian sweatshops today.

Also, it was ''not unusual for young girls to give their services for the first year for nothing, and the second year for 5s a week''.

As a correspondent asked the Otago Daily Times, ''Is this work or slavery?''

In my opinion, slavery.

Manufacturers both then and now play on the fact needy people will work at any rate for pure survival, even if it is next to nothing.

Beneficial indeed for large corporates wanting large profits.

They don't care if their products are made at ''the cost of the life, prosperity, and happiness of hundreds and thousands of working men and women'', as the Rev Rutherford Waddell put it.

If Victorian women protested or asked for higher wages they were ''in many instances, discharged, and other girls taken on in their place''.

The sheer number of willing, or desperate, workers for the tailoring industry resulted in lower wages. When one woman offered to work for less money, the overseer ordered the wages of all the women to be reduced to her offer.

This despicable act shows the importance of a minimum wage to ensure a decent standard of living.

Conditions began to improve after an Irish Presbyterian minister, Rutherford Waddell, exposed the exploitation in his famous sermon, ''The Sin of Cheapness''.

Mr Waddell also recommended an investigation and the formation of a union for women workers in the garment industry.

The Dunedin Tailoresses' Union, established in 1889, was for many years the only union led by a woman, the suffragist Harriet Morison.

The union improved working conditions for seamstresses in Dunedin and elsewhere by limiting working hours and prohibiting the taking of work home.

Harriet Morison told the Sweating Commission of 1890 that, ''since the establishment of the Union the workers are enabled to make a fair wage''.

Robert Slater, president of the Otago Trades and Labour Council agreed: ''Since the Union was formed the hands are in a more comfortable way than they were - both as regards wages and health are greatly improved'', while a seamstress stated that she ''had benefited much from the Union''.

I hope the 125th anniversary of the union's formation can inspire everyone, whether exploited or not.

Rutherford Waddell symbolises what one person can achieve by having the courage to speak out, and the union demonstrates the power of people when they work together.

Mr Waddell exposed exploitation and suggested a women's union to improve conditions for New Zealand seamstresses, breaking down barriers of exploitation and discrimination - in one industry, in one country.

Exploitation of workers and discrimination against women still exist in many areas of the world - but I hope that one person's courage will inspire others.

As a group of determined women and men in Dunedin showed almost 125 years ago, achieving equality in the workplace and beyond takes time, but is surely possible.

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