Magna Carta: "Workers' Rights"

The Revd Margaret Legg

It is Magna Carta that establishes the principle of Parliament. Without the force of law, worker’s rights in this country may never have been enforced. Clause 14 establishes the idea of a common council, as a means of obtaining common consent, rather than the King alone with one or two advisers he had chosen. KingJohn agreed to ‘cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons and all who are his direct tenants, for a fixed date, when the business shall proceed.’ In 1215 the business was likely to be either the assessment of a financial aid, so the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ comes from this, or of a scutage, the money paid by a vassal to his lord in lieu of military service.

In the 19th century the business was the horrendous working conditions resulting from the Industrial Revolution.

For many country folk, (the villeins or peasants of Magna Carta) who had drifted to the new cities at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, slavery must have felt the only way to describe their work. The Factories Inquiry Commission of 1833 found that a typical textile mill worker worked 77 hours a week - a lunch break of one hour varying the monotony of work between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m (7 p.m. on Saturdays). Most of the mills surveyed by the Commission employed children under 9. Our first reading was set in 1854 in just such a textile mill.

God, we read in Genesis, created people to have dominion over creation – to be his stewards – so work belongs to our very nature as humans, in which we find fulfilment. Work is essential for human flourishing, not only of the worker but also, through their help, of those in need (as Higgins, when he went on strike, took up the cause of his neighbour Boucher).

We are, if you like, God’s co-workers in his kingdom. But when working conditions reduce work to a chore, a punishment even, to be endured, and even then our basic needs for food, warmth and shelter, are not met, then it is time to stop work and protest.

Reform was initiated by factory owners, such as Robert Owen, and Titus Salt in Bradford, who managed to drag a series of Acts through Parliament to improve the lot of the working classes, starting with the 1819 Factory Act and culminating in the 1874 Act, which capped the working week at 56.5 hours per week. At the same time as these reforms were being driven from the top down, pressure was also coming up from the bottom up.

But what a struggle! In 1825 the Combinations of Workmen Act prohibited workers from attempting to bargain collectively for better terms and conditions at work and suppressed the right to strike. Picketing was a crime. Agricultural Labourers in Tolpuddle, Dorset got round this in 1832,by forming a Friendly Society, the rules and regulations of which were those that we would recognise as those of a trade union. Using the power of their solidarity to set a Minimum Wage, the Trade Union movement was born but not until 1871 did the Trades Union Act legalise them.

As well as reform through Parliament, striking was effective in improving conditions. In 1888 in London, the Bryant and May matchgirls staged a strike against working conditions, (14 hour days) poor pay and the use of hazardous materials. The dangers of chemicals, sung about earlier, is not new. Phossy jaw, which the matchgirls contracted from phosphorous used in the matchmaking process would begin with painful toothaches and then the jaw bone would begin to abscess. Surgical removal of the afflicted jaw bones could save the patient; otherwise, death from organ failure would follow. The disease was extremely painful and disfiguring to the patient, with dying bone tissue rotting away accompanied by a foul-smelling discharge.

The very next year, the London Dock Strike 1889 gave the dockers immense public support as a result of the reporting of their working conditions and extreme poverty; even the Pope came out in their support. These events laid the grounds for the modern trade union movement to emerge. Membership rose to over six-and-a-half million by the end of the First World War. Protest marches were another tool. In October 1936 the Jarrow March took place, against unemployment and extreme poverty suffered in North East England during the Great Depression. The Labour Party, founded in 1900 and first coming to power under Ramsey McDonald in 1924 united with the Unions to change society for the better of the ordinary worker. Many industries were brought into public ownership (nationalised) to take them out of the hands of the ruling classes, and the National Health Service was established.

We take it for granted nowadays that there is a minimum charter of employment rights, all of which are found in various Acts of Parliament, including: the right to a minimum wage 1998, paid holidays and working breaks 1998, the equality act 2010, redundancy payments and reasonable notice periods before dismissal. These are all designed to give people the right to dignified living standards, whether or not they have the relative bargaining power to get good terms and conditions in their contract. The issues facing modern day employers and workers, some of which we will hear of in our next reading, are a world away from Higgins, Mr Thornton and the mills of Milford.

Like all things, it can go too far the other way and the closed shop, intimidation on the picket line, restricting work to union members only, compulsory union membership and public voting on major issues were among the factors that led to the privatisation and containing of TU power in the Thatcher years. Some would argue that the legislation has gone too far.

A French baguette baker provoked a national debate recently about the country’s attitude to work after being ordered to stop working a 7 day week because it was against the law, even though his employees are all given 2 days off a week. Work gives us dignity and self esteem. Indeed a recent survey showed that almost a quarter of UK workers have lied to others about their jobs, perhaps because they dream of being pilots, footballers or writers, rather than traffic wardens (the most hated occupation in UK!). So Monsieur Cazeneuve, who last year was winner of the ‘best baguette in France’ award, could complain with conviction: ‘I am treated as a thug just because I asked to work.’ Health and Safety legislation first passed in 1972 has gone too far - It is often the butt of jokes, and misconceptions abound. For instance the belief that Health and Safety bans sweets being thrown at pantomimes, in case audience members are injured and placing pancake races out of bounds because of trip risks!

Each work place is legally bound to display publicly the regulations – here is ours. But lives not only of workers but also of the general public have been saved, thanks to the efforts of safety inspectors. Here is just one report from an inspector:

‘I was asked to visit a dry cleaner at the request of a local authority. They had been contacted by a family living above the shop who were worried about strong chemical odours reaching their flat. When I investigated I met a hardworking family firm who, in an effort to keep up with demands, were draping items across their extract ventilation system to dry and therefore compromising it. The consequences were very serious because the flat above was being polluted with toxic fumes. So toxic in fact that the family's toddler was now staggering not walking and the father had become uncharacteristically aggressive. These are recognised side effects of over-exposure to dry cleaning solvents. Who knows what might have happened had the root cause of the problem been missed and not remedied?’

The freedom which comes with increased rights, as always, bring responsibilities in its wake. We are created to be in relationship not only with God but also with one another. It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God created a partner for him –Eve! Work that is self-centred, or exploits others, or is self destructive destroys, rather than builds community.

Last month it was reported that the amount that sick leave costs the economy each year is £9 billion. Annually, more than a million people are absent for over a month. It does seem to rather beg the question: ‘Just how sick are these employees?’

A former chief executive of William Morrison, the supermarket chain, has been jailed for 12 monthsrecently for insider trading and just the other week Paul Robson, who worked at the London office of the Dutch-based lender Rabobank, was banned from the financial services industry for "lacking honesty and integrity”. He had been found guilty of rigging foreign exchange rates – the Libor scandal.

The principle of which he fell foul was established in no other than Magna Carta, in Clause 35, which demands standard weights and measures for the exchange currency of those days: grain, wine, beer and cloth. Then as now, for trade to flourish, buyer and seller had to work according to universally agreed measures. And the self destructive regime of the workaholic, sometimes imposed by the surrounding work culture but sometimes self inflicted can harm not only the worker but also their family and friends.

So watch out for the danger signs:

Feel guilty if you ever arrive late for work or leave early?

Do you ring or email the office every day when on holiday?

Arrange a breakfast meeting on your spouse/partner’s birthday?

Think about work when you should be relaxing or going to sleep?

Our work line manager, at the end of the day, the master of our household, in St Paul’s context, is God, our creator. When the workplace, the household, is run well, so that working conditions are conducive to diligence and care for each other,  then no matter when the boss turns up, we will be ready!