In arriving at this conclusion, we are far from maintaining that the public even in its private capacity as a body of consumers could do nothing. A certain portion of responsibility rests on the public, as we saw it rested on employers and on middlemen. But the malady is rightly traceable in its full force neither to the action of individuals nor of industrial classes, but to the relation which subsists between these individuals and classes; that is, to the nature and character of the industrial system in its present working. This may seem a vague statement, but it is correct; the desire to be prematurely definite has led to a narrow conception of the “sweating” malady, which more than anything else has impeded efforts at reform.
The Causes of Sweating.
Sec. 1. The excessive Supply of Low-skilled Labour.—Turning to the industrial system for an explanation of the evils of “Sweating,” we shall find three chief factors in the problem; three dominant aspects from which the question may be regarded. They are sometimes spoken of as the causes of sweating, but they are better described as conditions, and even as such are not separate, but closely related at various points.
The first condition of “sweating” is an abundant and excessive supply of low-skilled and inefficient labour. It needs no parade of economic reasoning to show that where there are more persons willing to do a particular kind of work than are required, the wages for that work, if free competition is permitted, cannot be more than what is just sufficient to induce the required number to accept the work. In other words, where there exists any quantity of unemployed competitors for low-skilled work, wages, hours of labour, and other conditions of employment are so regulated, as to present an attraction which just outweighs the alternatives open to the unemployed, viz. odd jobs, stealing, starving, and the poor-house. In countries where access to unused land is free, the productiveness of labour applied to such land marks the minimum of wages possible; in countries where no such access is possible, the minimum wages of unskilled labour, whenever the supply exceeds the demand, is determined by the attractiveness of the alternatives named above.