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Curse or Cure? Why Was the Enactment of Britain's 1909 Trade Boards Act so Controversial?


  • Sheila C. Blackburn


The Trade Boards Act of 1909 was introduced in Britain to counteract sweating. Associated with long hours, insanitary work conditions and inadequate pay - with the accent falling on low wages - sweating probably afflicted some 30 per cent of Edwardian Britain's labour force. Trade boards supporters as diverse as Winston Churchill and R. H. Tawney heralded the legislation as marking a significant break in economic and social thought. Opponents declared that the enactment of the legislation would be ruinous for Britain. The future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and his wife denounced trade boards as pallid reformism and campaigned for the licensing of home workshops. On the other hand, proponents of a subsistence minimum wage, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were disappointed that the legislation did not go further. Initially, it encompassed less than a quarter of a million workers. The rates set were not based on the cost of living but on what the individual trade could bear. On their own, trade boards were insufficient to eradicate Britain's long and historical tradition of being a low-paying economy. Trade boards (and their successors, wages councils) were trapped in their collective laissez-faire origins. However, despite its sanctioning of a statutory national minimum wage in 1998, the British state is still far from being interventionist in the labour market. If Britain is to break with the past, she must also implement a comprehensive framework of minimum rights. Otherwise, the principle of collective laissez-faire will still remain triumphant over the Webbs' alternative conception of a comprehensive labour code. Copyright (c) Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2009.

Suggested Citation

  • Sheila C. Blackburn, 2009. "Curse or Cure? Why Was the Enactment of Britain's 1909 Trade Boards Act so Controversial?," British Journal of Industrial Relations, London School of Economics, vol. 47(2), pages 214-239, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:brjirl:v:47:y:2009:i:2:p:214-239

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Deakin, Simon & Wilkinson, Frank, 2005. "The Law of the Labour Market: Industrialization, Employment, and Legal Evolution," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198152811.
    2. Constance Smith, 1914. "The Working of the Trade Boards Act in Great Britain and Ireland," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 22, pages 605-605.
    3. Roger L. Bowlby, 1957. "Union Policy toward Minimum Wage Legislation in Postwar Britain," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 11(1), pages 72-84, October.
    4. Richard Dickens & Alan Manning, 2004. "Spikes and spill-overs: The impact of the national minimum wage on the wage distribution in a low-wage sector," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 114(494), pages 95-101, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Peter Prowse & Ray Fells, 2016. "The Living Wage – Policy And Practice," Industrial Relations Journal, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 47(2), pages 144-162, March.
    2. David Metcalf, 2009. "Nothing New under the Sun: The Prescience of W. S. Sanders' 1906 Fabian Tract," British Journal of Industrial Relations, London School of Economics, vol. 47(2), pages 289-305, June.

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