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Column 387Question accordingly negatived.
There shall be established a home-working unit within the Health and Safety Executive. In each division of the Health and Safety Executive an inspector will be designated to concentrate on the inspection of home workers' health and safety.-- [Mrs. Mahon.] Brought up, and read the first time.
Mrs. Mahon : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. At present, home workers are effectively excluded from the protection of health and safety legislation. The Factories Act 1961 places a duty on firms in specified trades to notify local authorities about home workers for health and safety purposes, but the Health and Safety Commission noted in 1979 that that had more or less fallen into abeyance. Hackney was the first local authority to employ a home worker officer. Only 68 home workers were found to be registered, but it was estimated that 10 per cent. of all clothing production was carried out by home workers.
The 1981 Select Committee report on home working made a few recommendations, but the few that it made have been largely ignored. There is therefore a need to make firms register home workers and provide information about all materials, machinery and equipment used by them. The register should be available for inspection by trade unions and, of course, by the health and safety inspectorate, and the inspectorate should be given powers to prohibit the use of dangerous equipment and hazardous materials which are quite often used in the home.
If the new clause is accepted--I am fairly hopeful that the Minister will accept it--the Government should clearly provide adequate inspection and enforcement arrangements by increasing the number of inspectors substantially and providing the necessary back-up facilities. Home working is a long-standing example of casualised labour : there is no effective regulation of the suppliers, and the worker has no security, no rights and relatively poor pay. High unemployment, industrial restructuring and the withdrawal and weakening of regulatory mechanisms, such as the proposed abolition of the wages councils, form the background against which an increase in home working is predicted. Some people predict a substantial increase in both the numbers and the range of work covered.
As for the number of home workers, the figures vary considerably. Professor Peter Townsend estimated in 1968-69 that there were over 1 million and the 1981 Government census recorded 750,000. The general guesstimate is that there are now over 1 million, and it is largely accepted that most of them are women. They do a vast range of jobs, and the conditions under which they work can be intolerable--hence the need for the new clause. Some of those conditions would not be allowed in any factory, office or school. Many women are working in dangerous conditions, and the hazards are numerous.
The noise nuisance for people working with machinery is quite common. There is exposure to various chemicals and solvents and, obviously, there is the risk of fire from
Column 388trying to do at home a job that should be done in the workplace. There is also the question of machinery and electrical safety. Often, because of the long hours and the intricacy of the work, especially in knitting and sewing, there is a great deal of eye strain and headaches. There is also the problem of dirt and I shall look at that in detail when I outline the case of a home worker who uses electrical equipment. The nature of home work and the reason many women do it means that they work in small houses, in flats or even in bedsits. The work is often carried out while small children are in the room that has to be used. That is totally unacceptable. Home workers have to pay for their own heating and lighting and often for the electricity that is used to run welding equipment, computers, sewing machines or knitting machines.
Packing calls for masses of materials which have to be stored in passageways, living rooms and even kitchens. I visited some home workers in Halifax and could hardly get through the door : the small terraced house was piled to the ceiling with boxes ready to be packed. A variety of items such as Christmas crackers, Christmas cards and mail order catalogues are packed. Last year, The Observer carried the report of a sad case in Southwark in which a two-year-old child died while his mother was putting catalogues into envelopes. That shows the dangers that exist for women who work at home and try to look after young children at the same time.
As I have said, some home workers are exposed to hazardous substances. Some hon, Members will have heard about the widely reported case of a woman who was sticking felt on to piano keys and using benzine. She was doing it in a confined and poorly ventilated room and contracted leukaemia. The most vulnerable group of workers, those who are likely to have young children with them while they work, sometimes quite unknowingly expose themselves to great danger. The new clause would go some way towards providing for the inspection and examination of the workplace and the kind of work that women are doing.
Women carry out such work because it is the only sort of work they can do. If they are not caring for children, home workers are often found caring for elderly or disabled relatives. Because of the need to get work completed on time, children often help mother to carry it out. In the article in The Observer last June, one home worker said :
"My daughters aged 13 and 14 used to come in from school, eat, and start sewing. I could never have got enough money from the work if my children had not helped. We were absolutely desperate for money as my husband had left. I challenge anybody to check, sew and lay a dozen sweaters at the rate they set and earn more than 66p an hour." That seems to be fairly common practice among home workers. The new clause deals with health and safety, but the other matters that I have mentioned are relevant. At present, there are no health and safety checks, and there is little training. I understand that many people think that home working is a minor matter in terms of unemployment. Some people have an image of home workers as a few women working for pin money. That image has been challenged by many factual accounts of women in financial need having to work long hours for appalling wages because they have no other choice. Sheila Allen and Carol Wolkowitz carried out a study into home working and published a book last year. That gave the
Column 389results of intensive research into home working, especially in the west riding of Yorkshire where I come from, and revealed the realities of the situation.
In west Yorkshire, Louise Crew, a researcher at Leeds university, studied in detail the large textile and clothing companies in the area. She and Sheila Allen and Carol Wolkowitz discovered that, while home workers largely earn a pittance, they are part of big business. For example, one west Yorkshire company uses 1,200 hand knitters, and a Huddersfield firm says that its home workers contribute £3.5 million to the company's annual turnover. That is big business. The managing director of that Huddersfield company says that his firm chooses to put work out because of the advantages of flexibility, cheapness and a reduced need for space. All that firm's outworkers are women and 95 per cent. of them are from ethnic minorities who may not be well equipped to organise or to find their way around health and safety legislation in order to improve conditions
When firms such as those that I have mentioned put out work, they also put out their health and safety problems. They no longer have any concern for the conditions in which the women work. They can take on workers when they need them and drop them when work is slack. They have no obligations about job security or regular incomes for the workers. This is a big and expanding business.
In the Government's deregulated Britain, it is tempting for employers to move into the home work area. However, in many cases the work is degrading. I have raised in the House the case of the women in my constituency who were packing Christmas cards for 24p an hour. Those cards eventually found their way to the shelves in Woolworths. When Woolworths' managing director, Mair Barnsworth, was contacted she seemed unable to see anything wrong with that. She thought that, if the women worked twice as hard, they could earn as much as 48p an hour. It is a different story when the chief executive of Kingfisher, which owns Woolworths, awards himself a 50 per cent. pay rise of £701,000 a year. He earns £14,000 a week, which works out at about £350 an hour. That is in sharp contrast to the Halifax women, who earn 24p an hour. He does not work in dangerous and unpleasant conditions with boxes of cards filling his living room.
A packer in Halifax has started a group to try to highlight some of the hazards that home workers face. I found her account of her experience quite moving and I should like to read some of it. Bernie has now given up outwork and is organising other workers. She says : "When I did outwork, I used to make Christmas crackers. All in all it took roughly three minutes to make one. They consisted of six to a box and I was paid one penny per cracker. I earned roughly 40p per hour."
A normal rate of pay for packing work, which tends to be the lowest paid home work, is 40p to 50p an hour. I realise that considerably more is paid for some home work. She continued :
"I also made gift tags, which consisted of six tags, three green, three red, one red ribbon and one green ribbon. I folded them all, put them in bags and was given 1p per bag. There was many a time I used to stay up all night so as to get my wage packet at the end of the week, for buying shoes, clothes and sometimes food, for my children. Many people thought I did this for leisure money. But this was not the case. I did this to buy things which were a necessity. I could not go out to work, because I have small children, so I got them to bring work to me. I used to put in 90 hours a week. There
Column 390would be boxes stacked everywhere--little toys, paper hats and mottoes all over the room. The paper was so dazzling that my eyes used to hurt and then would come the headaches, followed by migraine. I would get terrible backache. But I could not stop for fear of losing some of my wages."
That was the experience of one home worker with whom I had contact earlier this year.
Home workers are susceptible to pressures which create worse conditions for them. Their very low rates of pay and the fact that they are on piecework mean that they have to drive themselves to work, often for long hours. Sometimes they cut corners on health, safety and welfare.
Knitting, which is a common form of home work, is not dangerous in itself, but when a heavily pregnant woman sits up all night to finish work, it becomes hazardous. Another experience was outlined to me by the woman herself who did the work in order to survive because she was on inadequate benefit. She was paid £5 to knit a very intricate mohair sweater which is sold in London boutiques for about £90. Because she was trying to pay off bills, she had to sit up all night to finish garments. That in itself was hazardous. I have many more first-hand examples from constituents, all of them women, who have to work for more hours than is good for them and their families. With home workers we get the other side of the Government's flexible work force. Often home workers have no employment rights and are vulnerable. I shall give another example of better-paid home work in my constituency. The work was supplied by FKI Cableform, whose parent company is FKI Babcock plc. FKI Cableform gave out electronic assembly work. The rate of pay was 31p a piece for assembling the work in the person's home. That was cut to 18.9p per piece. My constituent was already working 40 to 60 hours a week. She could earn £75 to £80 for working very long hours. If she accepts the new arbitrary arrangements whereby the piece rate is almost halved, she will have to work nearly double the hours to maintain the same income. That could be detrimental not just to her but to her family because she has family responsibilities, as do the other women who work for that firm.
The building society will not cut her mortgage in half, quite the contrary with interest rates as they are. The cost of cornflakes and other foods will not be halved overnight, but if she wants to maintain her income she will have to put herself at risk by working nearly double the hours that she worked before. Such exploitation should be dealt with. An inspectorate would examine the obvious hazards. It would also take into account the welfare of the worker and would examine conditions in the workplace, in this case the home.
I hope that the Government will accept the new clause. The Trades Union Congress has been concerned for some time about home work. It has put forward many suggestions to the Government and to various bodies interested in the health and safety of home workers. In a charter it has given advice to local authorities, to the Health and Safety Commission and to the Government. It wants provisions on the statute book that would treat home workers as employees and put a duty on those giving out home work to make six-monthly returns to local authorities giving details of where the work is placed and information on the type of work and the materials and equipment involved. It has also sugggested that the
Column 391information should be available to trade unions. It wants an inspectorate with powers to prohibit dangerous equipment and hazardous materials which present risks that could not be controlled in the home. It makes other useful suggestions.
I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the new clause and will see his way to implementing it. I recommend the new clause to the House.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know perhaps that a document, called the social charter, has been prepared by the European Commission and produced today. I understand that it is available to the Economic and Social Committee of the European Community. I have made inquiries in the Library because the document is directly relevant to the provisions of the Bill and to the new clause. It deals, amongst other things, with pay, hours, insurance, union membership and so forth. Many people believe that it is ultra vires of the treaty, particularly title III as amended by the Single European Act.
I want to take the opportunity to ask if we can make a protest on behalf of the House at the manner in which the House has been bypassed and ignored by the production of the charter without it even having been made available, as I understand it, to the Government, let alone to Parliament. I make that as a point of order that is directly relevant to the provisions of the Bill.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am not aware of the matter to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but I understand his concern. No doubt the Minister has listened to what has been said. He may find it relevant to comment on it when he intervenes, as he doubtless will, in the course of the debate.
Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley) : I endorse fully the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) who summarised some of the points that I intended to make. The debate is timely in view of the fact that only this afternoon the Select Committee on Employment has been interviewing three young women who came to give evidence about part-time work and home work. Home workers are usually women with young children, and they often use fast-moving machinery. To increase production and make more money they sometimes remove safety guards so the machinery then represents a hazard to their children. They also use adhesives and other solvents, yet they are not aware of their toxic content. That is another example of a hazard that confronts them. Those women are exploited, are paid very little, and have no form of redress or defence. Nobody speaks up for them, no organisation represents them, and no legislation protects them.
The House may be interested to know that today three young women gave evidence before the Employment Select Committee for two hours. They made frank comments rather than attempting to present sophisticated statistics. They spoke honestly from their own experience and knowledge.
The Committee was given a document from the Diocesan Board for Social Responsibility, an organisation within the Manchester diocese. It is so concerned about and appalled by the conditions reported to it that it is up in arms and is disgusted with the situation. The exploitation of home workers is not confined to any
Column 392particular city but can be found in Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Yorkshire, Halifax, and many other areas. Plenty of information can be produced about the wicked exploitation of people who are among the most disadvantaged. They may include the disabled who are unable to compete in the ordinary employment market and seriously handicapped in the limbs. Such disabled people may be able to use only their hands or fingers, yet they are desperate to make a little money. Also disadvantaged is the young mother of three or four children who cannot afford a babysitter. She cannot find employment in the competitive world and is stuck at home, desperate for money. Some employers are very conscious of such situations and exploit them.
The social responsibility document presented to the Committee gives a number of examples of the sheer greed of some employers. One example concerned hand knitting and designer wear, where a home worker in west Yorkshire was paid £4.50 for one week's work. It may be hard to believe, but that person was paid £4.50 for a hand-made sweater. That is the level of reward that is offered. It was found that home workers' rates of pay are on average 30 per cent. less than the normal remuneration for similar work. But such workers do not enjoy paid holidays, maternity rights, or sickness pay.
Home workers are also sometimes expected to use their own equipment, such as sewing machines, as well as providing electricity, heating and lighting. Despite that, the ladies who gave evidence to the Committee this afternoon said that in some cases no increases have been paid for three of four years. That means that in real terms home workers are paid less than they were four years ago, and that their income is not even keeping pace with inflation.
The Committee asked the ladies if they could name some of the employers involved. Everybody imagines that such exploitation is only perpetrated by the owners of small factories or companies of 15 to 20 workers who are just trying to top up their labour force, but that is not the case. Big businesses also are involved. The Committee was given the names of Marks and Spencer, Woolworth, C and A, and British Home Stores. They are all involved in exploitation and pay women home workers only a few pence, when, year after year, they go swanking on the stock exchange and talk about the millions of pounds they have made. Any idea that such exploitation is restricted to small organisations trying to top up their labour force must be dispelled. The Committee was also given examples of tax fiddles. One witness knew of a case in which an applicant was asked, "Will you submit two different names--one for the morning, and one for the afternoon?" That was done because of the tax fiddles that the company wished to enjoy.
Any fair-minded person will agree that it is time to clean up the home worker sector. That can only be done in this Chamber, because home workers labour in isolation, are not represented by any organisation, and have no one to speak up for them. If we really have a conscience, we can do something for them. We are putting the Minister to the test. He must either make a good case for ignoring our request--and I know that he cannot--or he must listen sympathetically and with compassion.
Column 393There is certainly a case for a minimum wage for home workers. I know that Ministers and Conservative Members are against a minimum wage, as are organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry. The CBI is worried about some of the consequences of 1992. It says, "We defer to the Government." Meanwhile, Conservative Members say, "Remember, we must be competitive." If we must pay poverty wages of the type I have described to remain competitive, how is it possible for countries such as France, Sweden and Germany to have minimum wages yet to have inflation rates half of ours, no financial crises and no balance of trade problems? The argument that to be competitive we must continue to pay poverty wages does not hold water and everybody recognises it as a complete sham.
When the Committee was taking evidence this afternoon, a young woman was asked what would happen if, though she received poverty wages, her employers did not offer her a job. Would she earn even less, was the implication of the question. My view is that companies paying those sorts of wages would have a hard time finding others to do the work for what they are paying, let alone finding people to do it more cheaply. Do Conservative Members really believe that if jobs were taken from poverty workers such as those, masses of people would be willing to work for 20p or 30p an hour?
The Committee was told of a lady making dresses who was receiving 90p per dress for her work. She happened to notice that the same dresses were being sold in the shops for £30. A Conservative Member asked the lady, "Did you see those dresses for sale up-market, the sort of dresses you were making? After all", he said, "they were selling for only £30." His statement almost took the breath away from those women, who said that they could never afford to buy a dress for £30, whether the shop selling them was up-market or down-market. I hope I have explained how some hon. Members are totally out of touch with reality and do not understand poverty or the suffering of the people about whom I am speaking. There is an overwhelming case for the introduction of a minimum wage and for protection in health and safety matters. We need a form of registration so that we can sort out some of the villains who are carrying on business in such a shady way, exploiting hard-working folk, particularly women.
Mr. Batiste : The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) is to be congratulated on moving a new clause which gives us an opportunity to explore, in more detail than time normally allows, an interesting and increasing area of activity in the United Kingdom--home working. I believe that we shall find, as further statistics become available to add to those that were available from the early part of the 1980s, that this has become a growing and increasingly attractive area of activity. So before we look in detail at the Opposition proposal, we must consider whether the negative view of home working which we have heard from the hon. Members for Halifax and for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) is justified on the evidence that is available.
The hon. Member for Blackley referred to three women who gave evidence to the Select Committee this afternoon. One could find any group of three people in any area of
Column 394activity who could present, honestly and fairly, a view of just about any industry and activity that would make people's hair stand on end. One must ask whether the evidence that was given by those three women was typical of the home working group of employees as a whole and whether it leads us to the conclusion, contained in the new clause, that a special unit of the Health and Safety Executive should be set up.
The best evidence that I have discovered is the 1981 special survey as supplemented by subsequent studies and brought together in the work of Catherine Hakim in an article which was published in 1987 in the Employment Gazette. I make no apologies for drawing heavily for statistics on that article, though I would happily look at any reasoned and comprehensive set of statistics that Opposition Members wished to adduce.
Before one considers what solutions one needs to perceived problems, it is important to examine whether those problems exist in the form in which they have been expressed and whether they are typical of an industry at large. The first question to ask in relation to the new clause is what is a home worker? Traditionally, that has caused much difficulty of definition, because it covers potentially a wide range of groups of people.
The hon. Member for Halifax must address her remarks more carefully to the specific group of employees she has in mind because I can see great difficulties in trying to impose the full jurisdiction of the Health and Safety Executive on large numbers of people who, on any reasonable definition of the term "home worker", are self-employed and would deeply resent such an imposition.
What are the general categories of people who are included? Clearly, large numbers of self-employed who work from home come within this category. One could perhaps exclude those who are self-employed, and deal only with those who are in employment. But that would probably not help the hon. Member for Halifax because the definitions of employment related to control by employers would probably exclude a large number of the people at whom she would be addressing her new clause. There is a difficult borderline to be borne in mind there. Perhaps one could limit the group to those who took work from only one supplier, but again there would still be a large number of people who were self-employed without having any employer of their own with any responsibility for the machinery or safety standards in their homes. Another category, for example, would be the areas of child minding, in which many people are engaged at home.
An increasing number of employees in this home-working category are information technology workers, and as the pace of technology advances a large number of jobs that were hitherto done in offices are often now done at home through computerised systems linked together through the telephone network. Again, one must ask whether they should be brought within the categories covered by the new clause. Another large group of people are in sales and haulage. There are many other examples. I hope that I have explained that a wide category of people come within the definition of home workers.
Mr. Eastham : The hon. Gentleman seems to imply that there could not be blanket protection to embrace all home workers. He surely does not believe that in, say, an engineering factory, all manner of different provisions are needed for the various categories of people who work in the factory, whether they are in the wages department,
Column 395operating a centre lathe or pushing a brush. It seems strange that it should be possible to find an umbrella of protective legislation to cover everyone in such a factory, yet the hon. Gentleman implies that the same sort of provision could not be made for all people working at home.
Mr. Batiste : The hon. Gentleman is jumping to conclusions about what I am going to say later. What I am saying at the moment is that, unlike him, I am trying to ascertain the facts as best I can and reach conclusions about dealing with the problems that relate to those facts. He will be aware that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 imposes certain burdens on employers and statutory duties to ensure health and safety at work. Difficult questions have to be answered if a large proportion of the people in the group that he and the hon. Member for Halifax wish to be covered by the Act are not employees technically. I am trying to point out that one has first to analyse the group that one wants to protect and see whether the protection that one is seeking to invoke would be relevant to that group of people.
The few examples that I have given already show that, far from being confined to a narrow group of people in limited working circumstances, home working is carried out in a wide range of different industries and activities, is growing in scope and can broadly be divided into two groups of people--those who work at home and those who work from home.
An interesting finding of the 1981 survey, which quite contradicts several of the points made by the hon. Members for Halifax and for Blackley, is that of those who work at home, 71 per cent. are women--that confirms what the hon. Member for Halifax said--but of those who work from home, an equal proportion--71 per cent.--are men. I do not know what significance that has one way or another in the context of health and safety at work, but as the hon. Lady said that we should find what a typical home worker is, I felt it important to put the record straight.
The 1981 survey looked at a number of particular features of a typical home worker. First, it looked at whether the typical home worker is someone who is either chronically ill or disabled. The hon. Members for Halifax and Blackley suggested that, typically, this was the situation. However, the survey shows the opposite--that there is no departure from the norm in the pattern of health of home workers as compared with industry at large.
The survey goes on to say that a high proportion of those who are home workers are owner-occupiers--something like four fifths--and that a strong element of motivation of those who work from home is the need to get income to help with the costs of home ownership and home buying given the expansion of home ownership. Interestingly, it says that, taking the group as a whole, home workers are better educated than the work force in general. This is a different picture from the one painted thus far.
When one goes on further to see what industries are involved in home working, the picture broadens out extensively from that so far given. The tables in the 1981 survey show that some 229,000 people were employed working at home--the group in which the largest proportion is women--while some 658,000 people were
Column 396employed as home-based workers--the group with a proportion of 71 per cent. men. An enormous range of industries is covered. Some 50, 000 people in the professional-related industries are working at home, and another 40,000 are home-based. As one would expect, large numbers of clerical workers--100,000--are home-based, some 25,000 are in catering and a considerable number are in farming. In processing, making and repairing--the manufacturing side--some 42,000 people work at home and some 47,000 are based at home. Those are just a few examples, which show that, rather than being confined to a manufacturing base, home workers cover a much wider range of industrial and commercial activity than has been suggested so far. The hours of work and the tenure of work are also quite different from what has been suggested so far. The tenure of work is shorter than for those who are employed full time in the work place, and the hours that each person works are much less. As the survey shows, working at home is the result of choice because one of the often-quoted advantages of home working is the sense of freedom and independence that it gives. The survey found this in an extensive number of interviews of those working at home.
As to earnings, typically they were low on average and they reflected part- time wage rates. The survey does not present any tables of wage rates, but it includes an important point. The survey did not deal with wage rates but stated that if the relatively short working hours of home workers are compared with those who work longer hours there is bound to be a discrepancy. But wage rates are irrelevant to this debate. We are debating not low pay but health and safety and the Health and Safety Executive. The issue of a national minimum wage touches on debates that we have had in Committee and in the House on many occasions, in which, naturally, differences between hon. Members have been apparent.
Mrs. Mahon : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a heavily pregnant woman having to sit up all night to complete a sweater for which she will be paid only £4.50 could have some effect on her health and that of her unborn child?
Mr. Batiste : Any pregnant woman who works too hard in any environment could put her health and that of her child at risk, but one would expect her to show a measure of responsibility in her work. Typically, hours worked at home are shorter than those worked at a fixed work place. Therefore, the home worker works in a much more relaxed environment, being able to work shorter hours in her own home rather than having to travel to a workplace. I do not think that the hon. Lady's point bears too much examination.
The survey considered how much control was exercised by employers, what work was done in the home and for how many hours. While there was quality control for manufacturing, consultancy or clerical work, little other control was exercised. As the new clause aims to enable health and safety inspectors to inspect work done at home, one would expect clearer evidence of widespread employer involvement, but fewer than half home workers qualified as employees.
Accidents are of more relevance to the new clause. What were the survey's results about accidents to home workers? The survey said : "The annual rate is very low indeed."
Column 397The impression has been given that the majority of home workers are disabled people or people suffering from a chronic illness that might predispose them to having accidents without supervision, but that is a false picture of the typical home worker. The home is a relatively dangerous environment, and many accidents happen each year as a result of circumstances at home rather than work done at home. I shall give way to any Opposition Member who can give statistical evidence showing that working at home is not safer than working in a factory.
Mr. Eastham : The hon. Gentleman challenges Opposition Members to give evidence of safety. I remind him that there are insufficient inspectors to visit homes or factories. There are already 129 fewer inspectors than there should be, and we are told that each factory receives one visit every seven years.
Mr. Eastham : I thought that it was seven years. Given its diminished staff, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Health and Safety Executive can catalogue all hazards and accidents? Who is he trying to kid?
Mr. Batiste : I think that the hon. Gentleman was saying that he has no evidence to present against the evidence in the report from which I have quoted and which he can get from the Library. It suggests that the rate of accidents among home workers is low. That report is based on a substantial test of home workers. It is important in debates such as this to get the best available evidence. I have quoted my sources, and the hon. Members for Blackley and for Halifax are welcome to check them.
The report revealed the positive attitude of home workers to home working. Freedom and flexibility were their hallmarks and home workers expressed great satisfaction at that. Dissatisfaction at home working was low and there was a low level of union membership. Given the typical profile of the home worker, I see no case for giving statutory rights to factory inspectors to walk into people's homes.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) tried deliberately to confuse the House or whether he was confused. He made a misleading comparison involving the large population who work from home. He tried to compare the population in general, including accountants and journalists, with the group of workers whom my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) wants to protect through the new clause. I concede that many people who are technically based at home, including those who do accountancy and insurance work, probably do not need the protection of the new clause. It was clear from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that that was not its target. The hon. Gentleman made out that, because we have not produced statistics to prove that health and safety inspectors should have a unit to cover at-home work and statistics to demonstrate that people are dying or are seriously injured because of health and safety problems in their homes, our case is not proved. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax nor my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) made that case. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau
Column 398Gwent (Mr. Foot) was responsible in the 1970s for putting health and safety legislation on the statute book. All other workers in industry and commerce have that protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax wants to extend it to those who work from home. I should like to make it plain to the hon. Member for Elmet, if he needs it brought home to him, that we are talking about people who work from home because of economic necessity. There is no great freedom in running a sewing machine in one of the bedrooms or the living room. People do this work not because they find it intellectually stimulating but because they are skint and the only way they can pay the mortgage or the rent or feed their family properly is by bringing in extra income.
Various groups work from home. We are concerned about the garment industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley said, Marks and Spencer and other companies sub-contract the work on their lines of fashion through an agent, perhaps to a putative manufacturer, who sub-contracts the work to someone in the home. It is usually called cut, make and trim. The manufacturer may cut and finally trim the garment, but the making up is done in the home, often for a pitifully small price per garment. The point about the difference between what the home workers receive and the price the garments fetch in the high street has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. 9.15 pm
It may appear that some great value is being added in the process if the home worker is receiving £5 for a garment that costs £90 when it is on the rack at Harrods. In reality, Harrods may be doing nicely, but four or five people are in the chain between the retail outlet and the home worker. That is where the money is going. The home worker receiving a low price per garment is not getting any benefit. All the way along the chain, no one makes a terrible amount of money, yet everyone combines to oppress the person at the end of the chain--the person manufacturing the garment at home.
We have been given examples of another group of workers, those who do paper work at home, such as stuffing Christmas cards or catalogues into envelopes and sending them out. They too are often poorly paid for their work. We are seeking to target the provisions of new clause 9 to help such groups.
The hon. Member for Elmet does himself and his party no credit by pretending that we seek to put a restrictive blanket on all those who work from home. We see new clause 9 as being helpful to those who work at home from economic necessity. Home workers, unlike workers in many industries, do not have the benefit of trade unionists with particular responsibility for health and safety or someone in the personnel department with expertise in health and safety. The workers we are discussing are often women who are isolated in their homes and have no knowledge of health and safety. Probably they do not even know what risks they are running. It is important to consider the type of work being done at home. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, home workers often deal with fire hazards. They deal with paper, which is highly flammable, or with material which is easily set alight, and both can cause major problems in the home. Home workers often do not know about that because they do not have the necessary expertise of trade unionists or personnel staff. They do not receive pamphlets from the
Column 399Department of Employment or guidance from the Health and Safety Executive. All we seek to do is to give them helpful advice and guidance from the Health and Safety Executive which, we propose, should have a special unit to provide such information.
To listen to the hon. Member for Elmet, one would think that we were dealing with a highly structured part of the economy, that it was marvellous to work at home and that everything was going swimmingly. What is wrong with that view? I must point out to the House that there is an economic argument against such exploitive labour. In the garment industry in particular there is no incentive for restructuring the way in which it conducts its business. If there is always somebody at the end of the line who is prepared to work for 50p per hour or less, there is no economic incentive to restructure that industry in such a way that it will operate on a modern and efficient basis. There is no incentive for anybody to invest in that industry because it can obtain such cheap labour. That is an obstacle to economic improvement and industrial restructuring and efficiency. The person at the end of the line has no choice and has to accept very low wages.
Hon. Members have discussed economic necessity. One reason why the overwhelming majority of low-paid people are women is the lamentable lack of child-care facilities. If there were proper child care in the workplace, women would not have to sit at home day after day, drudging for low wages. That is the reality of people's lives. They have no choice but to do demeaning and ill-paid work. One small thing that the House could do is at least to give them the knowledge that people within the Health and Safety Executive can give them advice on how to carry out work in the home. It is a small point, but it might save lives and put people's minds at rest. I hope that the House will support the new clause.
Mr. Haynes : I was not surprised at the speech by the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste). He was the "expert" on mining and on the history of Arthur Scargill. He is now the "expert" on what we are discussing this evening. He knows nothing. Solicitors think that they know it all, but the workers know it all. Hon. Members are talking about people who should not have to do what they are doing. I support the new clause so that people will have proper protection. It would not surprise me if Conservative Members have home workers, so I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are allowing some protection in that respect.
Hon. Members have been discussing earnings. A statement was made not many days ago by the Secretary of State for Social Security. He said that there is no poverty in this land. The Secretary of State for Social Security and the hon. Member for Elmet should visit some constituencies to find out whether there is any poverty. That is why the people whom Opposition Members represent must do low-paid work in their homes. It is a disgusting state of affairs. At the same time, we receive directives from Europe stating that certain things that we do not like must be put into operation.
I know what happens in this country. The people who employ home workers visit their homes, but they are not concerned about safety. They are concerned about their earnings. They want to see how much profit they have made out of the wicked work that they impose on people just to make a few pence. As has been said, it certainly is the exploitation of women.
Column 400My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) mentioned disabled people. They should represent 3 per cent. of the work forces of many firms. However, some firms are ignoring the law because they are interested in the profit motive. For them, to take on a disabled person would prevent them from making the profits that they need to make. I am proud of a firm in my constituency. The proportion of disabled people in its work force is not 3 per cent. but 3.5 per cent. That firm is Mardon Illingworth. I am proud of what that firm is doing, but I am certainly not proud of what the Government are allowing to happen to people who work in the home. My hon. Friends have explained the dangers. The hon. Member for Elmet said that Opposition Members' contributions were negative. I consider that the hon. Gentleman's contribution was a load of rubbish. He has been wheeled in by the Conservative party to put up a case against the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), which is in the interests of the people who need cover. I shall tell the House why the Minister will come to the Dispatch Box and say that he will not accept the clause. It is because the clause relates not just to home working, but to the whole of industry, especially the mining industry, where the Government have run down the number of inspectors so that there are no longer enough to carry out the job properly. They have done that wicked thing in the name of reducing public expenditure. They want to cut public expenditure and pour the money instead into the pockets of the people who do not need it.
The employers of home workers are often fly-by-nights. We are talking about the black economy. Some of the people who employ home workers are real crooks when it comes to dealing with finance. They are not paying taxes. If the Government spent more money on inspectors to pick up those bods we might get £1 million or £2 million into the coffers to pass on to those people who really need it, so they do not have to work at home for slave wages. We criticise other nations about slave labour, but that is slave labour. While the Government allow it to continue and do nothing about it, we want proper inspections. That is what the new clause is about and why we will vote for it. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, will accept it.
Mr. Cryer : If there are the difficulties that the oleaginously patronising contribution from the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) suggested and a further definition was needed, the Minister could easily say that he would produce a new clause to replace this one in the other place. There would be no problem about doing that. The question is whether there is a political will. If, for example, the designer working at home is placed on a par with the example that I shall give of exploited Asian women earning 30p and less an hour, the designer at home will not have any recourse to that unit of the Health and Safety Executive.
However, the Government are very good at running advertising campaigns, especially with their cronies who have contributed to the Conservative party coffers. They could run one to draw attention to the unit of the Health and Safety Executive and say that if advice was needed about such matters as additives, the use of electricity and the danger of machines, those people who needed it would have the opportunity to obtain it. In other words, it would
Column 401give workers more choice. Therefore, the designer or the professional, who had a lot of knowledge and was working in adequate surroundings--if he used some Tippex, he would have adequate ventilation--would not bother to obtain advice, but the exploited worker would have the opportunity to seek out information and knowledge. That would be an additional power to those people and, as I say, it would be self-selecting.
The hon. Member for Elmet has no need to patronise the House with his false analogies and fake arguments, which are designed to protect the cowboy as well as the professional to whom he referred. In my constituency there is probably the biggest greeting card manufacturer in the country. It has decent standards of employment and it recognises unions, which negotiate terms and conditions for its staff. However, it can be undermined by home workers. It is important that, where a company is prepared to invest in a factory and in plant and equipment, it should not be undermined by cowboys who do not invest in anything except a lorry and cardboard boxes or sacks to distribute the material around the various homes and who rely on the most primitive methods of assembly and construction to produce the equivalent merchandise.
I want to mention a case that was reported in my local evening paper, which refutes the case advanced by the hon. Member for Elmet. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, if there is one cowboy operator, there should be provision to ensure that that operator can be stopped. If only one group of home workers are exploited and are using their children to participate in the work late at night, thus inhibiting their school attendance record, there should be legislation to stop such exploitation. Those cowboy operators should be stopped even if they represent a minority, but from the evidence gathered here today, I suspect that they represent more than a minority.
I am pleased to say that investigative journalism on the part of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus unearthed an example of such exploitation. The headline related to the cost of a Christmas card and the article was about the immediate pre-Christmas period of 1988 when everyone is feeling comfortable and warm-hearted and the spirit of Christmas is at large, but not, apparently, at Astorgreen Ltd., greeting card manufacturers, of Glendale house, Goulbourne street, Keighley. It was producing cards and under-cutting firms such as the one in my constituency and was going round distributing cardboard boxes to be packed with Christmas cards.
The reporters from the local paper visited a number of the families who were doing that work. Some were afraid to be identified for fear of losing that work even though they were paid modest rates, but the article stated :
"But some spoke out, including Nasim Begum, of Compton street who had just received a delivery of 19 boxes.
Through an interpreter, she said she would spend six hours a day packing the boxes of 1,000 cards and hoped to earn about £24 a week."
That is probably the amount that the hon. Member for Elmet gives out in tips to various waiters at the restaurants that he obviously visits extremely regularly and rather too well.
The article continued :
Column 402"Her neighbour Mohammed Ghafoar said his wife Khataja Begum was giving up the work, after realising how much she was being paid A local councillor said : I know of some children as young as seven who have been working late into the night and afterwards are fit for very little else. It is affecting their school work and home life and they are earning just pennies. Families earn £30 a week packing 17, 000 cards.' A man who had worked casually for Astorgreen recruiting new families said that when he worked for them piecework rates offered were as low as £3.25. He said families packing some boxes of 72 cards were being paid 31 pence per box and these boxes were being sold by Astorgreen to wholesalers for £5.70 a box."
That is a massive mark-up.
The entrepreneur--a figure no doubt loved by the Conservatives--who was not exhibiting the spirit of Christmas, but the spirit of the enterprise culture, was asked by the reporter to refute the allegations. The paper states :
"Mr. Locker was given numerous opportunities to answer these allegations but refused to comment. On the first approach Mr. Locker told reporter Andrew Knight : I hear you've been out stirring things up. It's Friday, it's getting near Christmas and I am very busy. Go.'
Mr. Knight was shepherded out of the top floor of Astorgreen with Mr. Locker shouting after him to write or telephone for an interview. When phoned he refused to make an appointment. On later visits he covered photographer Ron Patchett's lens with his hand, and turned away reporters, Gerry Crookes and David Ford, empty-handed." It is quite clear that there is a need for a unit to which home workers can go for advice and help. They need some sort of safety net on which they can depend, and some hand to which they can reach out. The reporters of a major local paper, which is the only evening paper in the area and is widely respected, were turned aside with venom by that representative of the enterprise culture. That does not say too much about his attitude towards the home workers who were afraid of speaking out simply because of the possibility of losing their pittance.
The new clause may well lack definition. If it needs tidying up, all Opposition Members would be happy to hear the Minister say that he accepts it in principle and will ask one of the parliamentary draftsmen to tackle the problems. Such problems can be solved. When they encounter knotty problems in other matters, the Government rush through legislation. If the Minister is short of a parliamentary draftsman or two, why does he not go to the Department of Social Security, where he could find draftsmen who could weave magic round all sorts of problems? Draftsmen would have no difficulty in providing him with an adequate definition.
I welcome the new clause and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who has done so much work on the issue, has tabled it. If the Minister has a problem with the new clause, he should tell the House that he will wake up the Lords when the time comes and ask them to deal with a new clause to replace it. In the meantime, if anybody in Bradford, South is being exploited in the same way as the people in the case that I quoted, which took place as recently as last Christmas, I hope that they will get in touch with me, as their local Member of Parliament, or any other Opposition Member. We shall certainly take up their case and demonstrate the degree of exploitation that is taking place : part of our battle will be to fight against it.