previous
next



  ― 62 ―

7. Chapter VII. The Wool-Kings of Australia.

THE biggest industry in Australia is that of wool - growing, so far as value of product is concerned. The labor cost is the lowest. The squatter holds large areas of leased lands, and also owns vast areas of freehold. Over all these he is monarch of all he surveys, and prior to 1887 he did as he liked. He fixed his own terms for labor himself, drafted the agreement which the men had to sign, and so early as 1846 got a Masters and Servants Act passed in New South Wales—the principal wool-growing State—with special provisions enslaving the shearer under penalties of fine and imprisonment, and in addition forfeiture of earnings. When we also remember that the squatter was in most cases the magistrate administering the law, we can see that the unfortunate shearer or other station employee had but a poor show for justice.

The general shearing season in New South Wales lasts from July to December. The custom is for shearers to write beforehand and ask for a “pen” or “stand”—that is, an engagement to shear. (The sheep are placed in a pen, where the shearer catches one at a time and carries it to the shearing floor.) The employer replies, and if he engages he asks for £1 deposit to be sent, which is


  ― 63 ―
forfeited if the shearer fails to turn up at roll call. Shearing is by piece-work—or contract, as it is called. Each man engages to shear at so much per 100 sheep, the rate for some time having been 20s., but is now 24s. The shearer finds himself in shearing requisites and food. They all live in a hut provided for the purpose, and engage their own cook, to whom they pay four shillings or a little more per man per week. Rations are obtained from the station store.

In the pre-Union days not only did the squatter offer low rates for shearing, but he took advantage in many other ways. A favorite method was known as “second price.” The squatter would provide in the agreement which the shearers had to sign that he would pay for all sheep shorn to his satisfaction the sum of 17s. 6d. per hundred, but if at any time the shearer failed to do his work in a manner satisfactory to the employer or his agent he would be paid at the rate of 15s. per hundred—not only for the sheep alleged to be badly shorn, but for all those shorn previously and already passed as well done. Under this clause many men have had their work condemned during the last few days of the shearing, and have been victimised to the amount of 2s. 6d. per hundred on thousands of sheep, which had been shorn satisfactorily.

Another scheme was known as “raddling.” This meant that a whole penful of sheep would be marked and not paid for because the last one or any other one was not done to please the boss. As the employer was sole judge, he had the men at his mercy. The greatest of all schemes for robbing the


  ― 64 ―
shearer was the almost universal practice of charging exorbitant prices for rations. For instance, £2 10s. per bag has been charged by the station for flour, though it could be bought at a store a mile away for £1. Men have had to pay 3s. per bar for soap which could be bought for 8d. in the shops. Everything was from 20 to 100 per cent. dearer than ordinary store rates in the same neighborhood. To make sure of securing these prices they would insert a clause in the shearing contract agreement binding the men to purchase everything at the station store. Further, many of them prohibited hawkers from coming near the shearers' hut.

As the cook had to obtain the supplies when required, the cost would depend largely not only on his ability as a cook, but his attention to the weight and quality of goods. Some squatters insisted on having a voice in the appointment of the cook, though they had nothing to do with paying him. In the new agreement put forward by the Pastoralists' Union in 1894 they had a clause claiming the privilege.

It is not hard to understand why they wanted to have their own man appointed. Once a shearer or shed employee signed on he was a prisoner till the work was done. He could not leave, but could be discharged at the sweet will of the employer or his agent, and often the conditions of agreement made it to the advantage of the employer to discharge him. Needless to say, all classes of labor on stations were treated in a similar way so far as circumstances would permit. It is not claimed that all pastoralists acted unfairly, but nevertheless the great body did so. As might be expected under such provocation,


  ― 65 ―
it was not every worker who treated the employer with due consideration.

Photograph facing p.64. Monument to Wm.McLean, shot at Grassmere, 1894.



The accommodation provided for the workers at shearing time was something awful. Mostly it was unfit to put human beings into, and consisted of long, draughty buildings without windows, the timber often being so open that you could put your arm through. Two and often three tiers of bunks, one above the other, would be ranged all round the walls of the narrow hut. The table at which the men ate their meals ran down the centre. The cooking was done in a huge fireplace at one end, with the oven at its side. When the cook wanted to grill chops he spread burning coals on the earthen floor in front of the fireplace and laid his gridiron—a frame about three feet square—on the coals, the smell of the burning fat filling the hut where the men had to dress and undress, eat and sleep, all in one room.

The bunks for sleeping in were made of rough boards, neither mattresses nor even straw being provided. They were only a bare six feet in length over all, and as Australians are mostly tall men— from five feet ten inches to six feet seven being not uncommon—the closeness of your neighbor's feet to your nose can be pictured. The odor of clothing saturated with the yolk of sheep's wool, mixed with perspiration, is anything but pleasant. The floor of the hut was earth, frequently worn lower than the surface outside, thus being full of stagnant water when unused between shearing seasons.

The surroundings of the hut were insanitary, the men being left to make provision for themselves. Frequently the drainage of the hut and its insanitary


  ― 66 ―
surroundings ran into the only water supply available to the workers. In more than one station typhoid fever appears almost annually, and many deaths occur from this and other ailments distinctly traceable to the want of reasonable provision on the part of the employer for the comfort of his employees. As a matter of fact, the horses and dogs of the pastoralist were better housed and cared for than the workmen out of whose labor he made enormous profits.

Shearing is very hard work, and is inevitably done under severe conditions as to temperature. Men try to out-do each other in their ambition to be the “ringer” of the shed. The stooping position, the handling of sheep sometimes wet, inhaling impure air under a low roof of galvanized iron in a hot climate, are all conditions which entitle the worker to high wages. Further, there is no industry in which the value of the product is more readily and seriously affected by inefficient workmanship.

Then, again, men who follow shearing must travel long distances prior to starting. The average would probably amount to 300 miles. Very rarely can this be done by rail, and in any case some means of travel is needed between stations, as men must have more than one shed or it will not pay to go out at all. The inevitable lost time is never allowed for by the pastoralist.

At one time there was work during the off season on the stations—tank-sinking, fencing, etc.— but that is done away with, and the pastoralist must now depend on many thousands of men leaving other occupations to furnish the labor required in


  ― 67 ―
the shearing season. He is very slow to see that he will have to give better terms or he will fail to get it. The evils here referred to, and an attempt to reduce the shearing rates by 2s. 6d. per 100 sheep. led to the organization of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1886.

previous
next