Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Agricultural Unions

Here is another extract from Norman Le Brocq's history of the working class in Jersey. It is the post-war era, and the agriculture now saw a conflict arising between farmer and labourer.

Some notes on values (1). The worth of the potato export market of £994,000 is roughly equivalent to £33 million 900 pounds. In 2009, around 45,000 tonnes of Jersey Royal Potatoes were being exported (99% of the crop) with an estimated value of just under £28 million (2).

The weekly wage of 10/- to 15/- plus works out at around £17.00 to £25.50, and the supplement per vergée was an extra £6.81 per labourer. Meanwhile, the crop was yielding around £120 per vergée to the farmer, equivalent to around £4,090. Clearly, the more farmers could keep wage costs down, the greater their profit. Nevertheless the workers had perks such as free food, and sometimes rent free accommodation.

Where farmers provided living conditions for labourers or casual seasonal labour, these remained very rudimentary even after 1945, and it was not really until the last decades of the 20th century, when the States took a more proactive role in looking at those, largely on fire safety and health grounds. The introduction of "benefits in kind" as being taxable recently, and a value assigned to free accommodation, also hit the farmer hard, as the added value they could offer to their workers was diminished significantly.

Casual labour in 1919 could be local, but was equally likely to be French. The French community in Jersey was very strong, and until recently French lane still had a shop selling French newspapers. The years after 1945 saw a marked decline in French labour, and the introduction of the Portuguese labourers.

It is salutary to note that while the "weekly wage" is mentioned, the week in question is "up to an 84 hour week", which would be the equivalent of two weeks by most office or shop workers today. It is (on average) 12 hours per day.

Agricultural Unions
It will he noted that one of the Union Branches existing at this time was that of the Agricultural Workers. It was not a large branch numerically, for the agricultural worker in Jersey was about as backward as anyone in making his grievances public.
Although farming is Jersey's chief industry, the large farm is rare. There are some landlords with large landed possessions; but these are split up into small leaseholds, with the owner usually working one of these in person, So in Jersey, tenant and landlord farmers are both great in number. The tenant farmer worked about four-fifths of all cultivated land in 1919.
Both types exhibit the typical peasant characteristics: thrift, backwardness of technique, family exploitation, and conservatism in politics
The average size of the Jersey farm was seven acres (approx.). Out of the 1,820 holdings of more than one acre, 1,579 were smaller than 20 acres, and only five larger than 50 acres. The number of horses used for agricultural purposes was 2,071. Tractors and lorries were practically non-existent. The number of cattle was 10,172 and the number of pigs, sheep, etc., 4,583. The value of the potatoes exported in 1919 was just under the million pounds. (£994,000)
Such was the state of Jersey agriculture. What part did the landless labourer play? The figure for 1919 being unavailable, we can only take a figure for 1931. However, it held good in 1919 with very little modification. In 1931 there were 2,569 agricultural workers regularly employed. We can take 2,500 as being roughly the number for 1919. This shows us that there was only one labourer employed for each eight acres of cultivated land. It will be seen that most of the work was done by the farmer and his family.
The agricultural worker was expected to work anything up to an 84-hour week, for which he received 10/- to 15/- plus, sometimes, his keep, or a cottage rent free, or a supply of vegetables and milk. On the whole he was probably as " well off " as the town worker at that time
His share of the wealth of the farming community, however, was very small. He dug the farmer's potatoes, with the aid of casual labour taken on for the "season," for  £4 per vergée (four-ninths of an acre) while the farmer was selling the potatoes at about £2 per cental. (An average crop is 60 centals to the vergée.)
On June 1, 1919, the potato diggers decided that this was not good enough. They struck. The D.W.R. & G.W.U. had been negotiating with the Farmers' Union or some time without reaching agreement. The farmers had offered £4 5s. per vergée; but this was not definitely accepted. The rank and file, particularly in the south east of the island, asked for £5 per vergée, and called for a strike. The men came out. The Union officials  refused to authorise it and refused strike pay. At this about half the men went back to work at the new rate of £4 5s. After a mass meeting on Gorey Common and some days off kicking their heels, the remainder drifted back to work. So ended the first, and up to the present, the only agricultural workers' strike in Jersey. So ended also, for all practical purposes, the Agricultural Workers' Branch of the Union.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for that very interesting reading Tony. I have been collating soem figures recently on the current state of farming in Jersey.
One of the figures it is very hard to pin donw is how many farms there are. We know the numbe rof holdings, but that is about land grouping and ownership, not farms per se.

I'm sure the average farm size is now rather more than 7 vg. If it were that size, we would have around 5,000 working farms!

Striking isn't it just how hard our forebears worked just to live.

TonyTheProf said...

Yes, there was a policy by (I believe) Dick Shenton when he was in charge of Ag/Fish to move towards bigger farms and squeeze out smaller ones. I think in the 1980s, but I just going by memory.