In the early 1930s there was regular employment available in the new factories that was more appealing than the erratic hours worked in the building industry. The building industry is a very seasonal one; wet and cold weather bring a change in the demand for labour. Demand for houses tends to slacken during the winter months, and building works must stop for hard frosts. The winter also brings shorter working days, and wet weather makes building operations generally inconvenient and results in the loss of wages for labour employed within the industry. An inquiry by the Board of Trade in 1909 into the earnings and hours of labour estimated that in the summer the average number of hours worked per week [in the building industry] varied from 45 hours in Liverpool to 54 in Southampton (20). By 1920, forty-four hours had been fixed as the weekly basic maximum over a summer and winter average (21).
Work in the modern factories of the 1930s was constant and expanding as demand increased for consumer goods. The speculative builder, in addition to coping with the regular difficulties of the industry, had to find large numbers of workers to keep up with the demands of the buying public for the homes he was creating. At the same time he also needed to prevent other builders on adjoining sites from poaching his tradesmen. The building industry had always used a large proportion of casual labour to meet sudden demands and reduce the costs of employing regular men. Changes made in the Unemployment Act of 1934 allowed for the payment of men who were waiting for work (22). If they signed off the register, there was a period in which they had to wait before signing on again. This change enabled men to accept casual labour on a piece-time basis from sub-contractors while at the same time remaining on the unemployment register and drawing dole. This enabled the sub-contractors to lower their prices as they could pay some members of their work force lower wages. This change in the law also had the had the effect of distorting the statistics on employment.
The proportions of casual to permanent labour are difficult to determine. Even today the Department of Employment advised the author that the numbers of casual labourers used in the industry is difficult to assess (23). 'By 1970 it was estimated that of a total building work force of 1,250,000 men anything up to 400,000 were 'on the lump'. Estimates by the Department of Employment and Productivity and Department of Inland Revenue at the time thought that the figure fluctuated between 400,000 and 600,000'(24). It is likely that in the 1930s the proportions of casual labour would have been higher. The provisions of the Finance Act (No.2) 1975 were drafted with the intentions of finally ending the custom of working 'on the lump' (25). This phrase had its origins in the methods of letting out sections of the work for a fixed price, a 'lump price'. It was similar to the term piece-work. Piece-work was a system under which craftsmen (the term became widely abused at this time as it implied men who had served an apprenticeship) undertook to provide the labour, and if necessary the materials, for a particular job at a definite price. The 1975 Act was passed to cover those sub-contractors who provided men for work in the building industry, but who did not pay income tax nor make national insurance payments on their behalf. In the debates of the Finance (No.2) Bill leading up to the passing of the Act there were no numbers given for the amount of tax lost as a result of the non-registration of workers (26).
The problem of unregistered and untaxed workers in the building industry had clearly existed for some time. In 1908, N.Dearle said that applicants which feed the casual labour market are 'those are the people who have run wild as lads and grown up without training or a trade, those who live by picking up casual jobs as builders labourers or painters...for the small masters who seldom have regular work but keep their men only partially employed... Indeed, quite a number of the more casual workers have been men who have originally possessed other trades. (27)' By the 1930 the position had not significantly changed and the slump added to the numbers of itinerant workers in the country.
In the 1930s the speculative builder tried to overcome the problem of labour shortages in those areas where he was building the new estates in various ways. If local labour was not sufficient then he recruited from other parts of the United Kingdom and Southern Ireland. A recruiter would be hired who would arrange for the men to come to wherever they were required, usually the London area, on the promise of regular work and a place in which to lodge. Lodging was sometimes primitive and workers were housed temporary in farm buildings and tents until permanent accommodation could be found (28).
(20) Report on Changes in Rates of Wages and Hours of Labour in the U.K. 1909, (H.M.S.O, 1910), p. 84.
(21) L. Wood, A Union to Build (London, 1979),p. 45.
(22) The Unemployment Act 1934,24 and 25 Geo V, Ch 29.
(23) In a letter to the writer dated 23 August 1994 from the Department of Employment.
(24) L. Wood ,A Union to Build (London, 1979),p. 83.
(25) The Finance Act (No.2) 1975.
(26) Hansard vol 891, col. 1646.
(27) N.Dearle, Problems of the Unemployment in the London Building Trades (London, 1908), p. 176.
(28) The farm buildings shown in A. Jenkins, On Site (London, 1971), p.2. were used to provide accommodation during the week for workers who would then return home at weekends.