Olive Malvery, c.1907
Advocacy for a Minimum Wages Bill
In her second book ‘Baby Toilers’ (1907), Malvery called for ‘a revolution in the payment for work, and a Wages Bill which will insist on a just wage being paid to women, especially those engaged in home work taken from the factories and middle-men. A Minimum Wages Act, and an unflinchingly severe enforcement of it, would do much to ease the burden of the babies’.
She argued that a Minimum Wages Bill regulating payment for all classes of work was ‘the one effectual remedy for child slavery in this country’, that would see ‘one of the most hideous evils of our times would, within a short space, be swept away.’
Malvery viewed the creation of minimum wages as a women’s issue, and criticised the existing law in Belgium as only covering trades that almost exclusively employed men. She also targeted the issue of equal pay:
‘It is a curious fact that in all arguments relating to woman's position as a citizen, it is maintained that she need never have, as indeed she never has had, the wages of a man- Tradition has it that a man is the supporter of the family. Among the home-workers this idea that the man supports the family is a myth! Almost the entire burden falls on the women and the children.
Still we would not so far frustrate our own end as to fight for an equal wage for men and women: this Utopian condition will not come about, at any rate in our time.’
Despite its limitations, Malvery argued that following a Minimum Wages Act ‘the whole class of home workers would be lifted up to a more decent plane’. She was also frustrated with England’s inefficient and costly reliance on charity:
'We ought no more to be required to support the victims of the sweater and the dram-shop, than we should, after having paid our rates, be expected to serve in the police force…We sell our little ones into slavery; then when we find them crippled, deformed, and sick, we snatch them from their tainted homes and place them in hospitals which cost millions to support. Would it not be cheaper to insist on a minimum wage for the mothers and fathers of these children'?
Her calls for legislation were noticed and made an impact. In the House of Lords on 26 October 1908, Lord Ampthill raised a question regarding the ‘legislation at an early date to secure the establishment of wages boards in selected trades, and to make other provisions for improving the conditions of home workers in sweated industries’, stating:
“my own feelings of sympathy and indignation, were first aroused by the works of a lady whose name must be well-known to your Lordships. I refer to Miss Olive Malvery, and particularly to her books entitled "The Soul Market," and "Baby Toilers." The heroic enterprises of this lady in the cause of philanthropy more particularly interested me from the fact that she is not an English woman, but is of Indian birth. The interest which these books aroused in my mind naturally led me to seek for further information”.
The Trade Boards Act (1909) introduced the legal control of low pay through establishing boards to arbitrate on the pay of those employed in chain-making, the machine-made lace and finishing trade, tailoring and paper-box making.