Reader reflects on zero hours century ago

Last week on Facebook, we shared a New Zealand Herald article about the beginning of the end of ‘Zero Hours’. It’s a nasty, global work-life phenomenon that sees low-skilled employees locked into contracts that neither guarantees hours from week to week, nor allows employees to top up earnings elsewhere. The post was a precursor to a Case Basket feature on a similar thing.

While ‘zero hours’ may be frowned on by most, recent March 6 changes that saw the Employment Relations Act 2000 become the Employment Relations Amendment Act means quite literally ‘flexible’ changes in many an employment contract. But that’s another story.

On reading our Facebook post, Aucklander and ex-pat Brit, John Heywood, asked us to share a very historic sense of deja-vu. His letter to the editor depicts what a zero hours mentality looked like over one hundred years ago; Mr Heywood hopes this is a situation to which society never returns.

As a boy, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, I suffered illness, which in itself was terrible, but had the advantage that my wonderful relatives used to visit and comfort me, telling me stories which calmed me and helped me to fall asleep.

One of these people was my grandmother, Lillian Heywood. She was a tiny iron lady who was born in Rochdale, a place enjoying the beauty and grandeur of the Lancashire hills, but with winters that, in parts, would cut people off from their homes at the end of the day with its sudden blizzards.

It was against this backdrop I recall my grandma’s conviction for social justice which she held all her life, as well as the ideal of education, through which ordinary people might improve their lives. This was the story she used to tell me:

 “I used to go down to the mill in the mornings to take my father his lunch after my mother had made it. It was a long road, difficult, with puddles and cart–ruts in the bad weather. As I approached the mill there would be long lines of men waiting outside for work, because there was nothing else up there.

“I kept my head down and looked ahead, and went in through the wrought iron gates, to the engine room to give the parcel to my father. I could see through the iron railings the men waiting, and then the overseer would come out and walk down the line, nodding to this one or that, tapping one on the shoulder to go forward to the mill, confirming that they had been selected for that day. The others just had to turn round and go home”.

The boy I was then may have said that it seemed fair – it was the same way we used to pick teams for football on the street. But Grandmother said otherwise.

“You had to feel sorry for the ones who were turned away. They had to go home to their families with nothing for food, for the fire, for clothes, or for rent. And it wasn’t fair either, some of the women used to keep some of the family food back, do some cooking and bring it in a headscarf or towel and give it to the overseer, and he would take it and favour that woman’s husband for work.

“Father was lucky, he had educated himself to be an engineer, and he was needed to keep the engines and machinery going, so his job was always there.”

Another related story was of her brother. He did an apprenticeship in a local engineering shop, becoming a toolmaker over six years, but then when he was twenty-one they laid him off.

“That was what they used to do” said my grandma, “as apprentices were cheap labour. As soon as they became tradesmen, they were too expensive.”