THE EMPLOYERS' LIABILITY ACT.
NEVER, perhaps, has there been a more speedy and a more signal refutation of the dismal prophecies of the opponents of a reform in the law than is contained in the Report of the Select Committee of last Session on the Em- ployers' Liability Act. The opponents of that measure of obvious justice and equity prophesied that even in the truncated form in which only the House of Lords would allow it to pass, it would be the ruin of British industry, by causing in- cessant litigation and abolishing all friendly relations between employers and employed, while it imposed on the employer a burden too grievous to be borne. So great was the Tory opposition to the Act, that the House of Lords insisted on limiting its operation to seven years, and it expires accordingly on December 31st of next year. Happily, in imposing this limitation, that House has defeated its own ends. With a view to determining whether the Act should be allowed to expire or not, the inquiry of last Session was necessitated, and that inquiry has proved to demonstration the miserable short- sightedness of the assembly whose special function it is supposed to be to contribute prudence and foresight to the Constitution, and its difficulty in taking a statesmanlike or equitable view of any legislative problem which is supposed to involve the interests of the upper classes. Not only has the inquiry shown that none of the evils anticipated have been inflicted, but it has also shown that all the limitations and amendments over which some employers and the House of Lords fought with such bitterness are un- necessary and prejudicial. With one unimportant exception, every witness called before the Committee, employer and em- ployed, man of law or man of business alike, pronounced that the Act has been productive of good, so far as it goes, to every one concerned, and that it ought to be made permanent. Of that there is practically no question. But questions have arisen on the precise extent to which it should be extender], for no one has been found to contend that it should be cur- tailed. The chief question before the Committee was,—Should the Act be made compulsory, so that no one should be allowed to contract out of it on any conditions, or should contracting out be allowed on any and what conditions ? Then, should it be extended to give compensation in cases where the negligence which has caused the accident is that of a subordinate, and not of a principal ? Lastly, should it be extended to seamen, tramway companies' servants, omnibus conductors, and, in fact, all servants ? The Committee was equally divided on the point of compulsion, and the Chairman, Sir Thomas Brassey, unfortunately recorded his vote with the noes. The evidence was certainly in favour of compulsion. In the large trades, or the trades where great masses of men are habitually working together, as in mines and railways, an endeavour was made to show that the Act conferred greater benefits on the men where contracting out of the Act prevailed than where it did not ; but the endeavour was not successful. It was proved, indeed, that in such trades, contracting out of the Act was always made for good consideration. In the London and North- Western Company, employing some 60,000 men, contracting out of the Act is a condition of employment. Every man employed, directly or indirectly, in any capacity—engine- driver, porter, day-labourer, or what not—is compelled to contribute to an Insurance Society, of which the Company are the bankers, the contributions, 3d., 2d., or id. a week, according to class, being deducted from the wages. On these contributions from the employed the Company pays 45 per cent., the result being that whereas before the Act the Com- pany only contributed, on an average, £1,500 a year to the insurance fund, since the Act they have contributed £13,000 a year, representing a gain to the men of some £11,500 a year. The men are represented as entirely satisfied with the arrangement, and petitioned against the Act being made com- pulsory, on the ground that the present beneficial arrangements in their favour would be upset. But it was given in evidence that the petitions were drawn up by the Company's solicitor, and sent round from head.quarters by the chief officials; that some men who voted wrong were made to rescind their votes ; and that notice was sent round that if the Bill making the Act compulsory were to become law, the Company would at once break up the Insurance Society and cease its con- tributions. Petitions produced under such circumstances can hardly be considered of much value. No doubt the present arrangement is beneficial in some respects, and it is indisputable that by forcing such an arrangement on the Company a very substantial benefit has been conferred on the men by the Act. But the arrangement is not an unmixed benefit, and, more-
over, the benefit ought not to, and would not in all probability, cease because the Act was made compulsory. The arrangement is a distinct gain in one way, as all accidents are paid for by the Insurance Society, whether they are such as the Com- pany would be responsible for under the Act or not, and all necessity for litigation is avoided. But, on the other hand, in
cases of serious accidents, for which the Company would be responsible, the men lose considerably ; while it is a most mis- chievous arrangement that the contributions are made a con- dition of employment. As regards the first point, the utmost
payment in case of death by accident is £100, while under the Act it would, in the case of the maximum of three years' wages being allowed, be £234 for 30s. a week, and upwards in proportion to the wage?, and the whole amount would come out of the Company's pocket, instead of the greater part coming, as now, out of the men's own pockets. Nor would any appreciable amount in most cases be spent in law costs, because the experience of one of the largest Insurance Com- panies under the Act was that ten claims were paid without demur to one claim that was contested in any way.
Moreover, if men are dismissed from the service of the Company, and the Company have absolute power of dismissal,
they lose not only the right to all benefit from the insurance fund, but also every penny they have contributed to the Society while in the service. In the case of those servants
who are only takan on temporarily for a few weeks of high pressure, this is extremely hard, and the permanent staff simply benefit at their expense. The result, no doubt, contributes to discipline, and it is defended by the General Manager on that account. But a discipline which converts tha men into mere machines, unable to call their souls their own, is not the kind of discipline we want in this country. Nor is it conducive to the good of the public to have men whose discipline is such that they will submit without a murmur to act as signalmen for eighteen hours on a stretch, because if they did murmur, they would lose not only their employment, but the whole of their own forced contributions. Moreover, it is conclusively proved by the example of other Companies that this condition is unnecessary. Neither the Midland, that pioneer of railway enterprise and chief consulter of the convenience of the public, the Great Northern, nor the Great Western Company make their men contract out of the Act. Yet they are not harassed with litigation. In 1885, only ten cases were brought against the Midland, the total amount paid being £512. But the Midland also have a provident or insurance society, to which, with 40,000 men only, they contributed £9,000. The Great Western in 1885 only had five claims under the Act, and- they paid £105 ; but they, too, have pension funds and provident societies, and contribute not 45 per cent., as the London and North-Western do, of the men's contributions, but a sum equal to the men's contributions, or cent. per cent. The exact figures as to the Great Northern were not given ; but they, too, though paying some £600 under the Act, also have provident societies to which they contribute largely. It is perfectly clear, therefore, that on the part of the North-Western Com- pany it is unnecessary to compel their men to contract out of the Act, and that the latter do not, in fact, get sub- stantial value in return as compared with the servants of other Companies. We have discussed this railway question at length because there is no doubt that if it had not been for the sup- posed opposition of the North-Western employes, the conclu- sion of the Committee would have been in favour of the Act being everywhere compulsory. Some mining evidence of the same kind was produced, but muc'a less strong. It is only in South-West Lancashire and parts of Wales that contracting out of the Act prevails. The sturdy North would have none of it. It does not even prevail universally in South Lancashire, as Colonel Blundell leaves his men free. Where it does pre- viii, it causes grave dissatisfaction. Well it may ; for the con- tribution of the employers is only 25 per cent. on the men's contributions, and this in this most dangerous of all employ- ments, and in the most dangerous districts. But this is not the worst case. It appears that in the London building trade, where there is no united force of men habitually working together, the employers at first made contracting out of the Act without consideration a con- dition of employment, and when strikes were threatened betook themselves to the plan of letting out their works to sub-contractors who were men of straw, and when accidents involving serious liability occurred were nowhere to be found. The Committee have endeavoured to meet both these evasions. They recommend that contracting out of the Act should only be permissible where, "in the opinion of a competent authority," adequate consideration is given by the employer in return for the surrender of the right of action under the Act. But they do not say what a "competent authority" may be,—and if they mean the Court, they mean uncertainty ; and if they mean a body such as the Board of Trade, they mean introducing more Government interference with trade, and, as in the case of merchant shipping, a probably illusory pro- tection to the men. We cannot but regret that the Committee did not decide in favour of absolute compulsion, as we can hardly believe that employers such as the North-Western Com- pany would break up the Provident Societies because their men were restored to the full legal rights which Parliament intended to bestow on them.
The other recommendations of the Committee are more adequate. They recommend that the principal employer who lets his work to a sub-contractor, should be responsible as well as the sub-contractor ; that the absurd provision which deprives the workman of his remedy when he is acting under the superintendence of a person "ordinarily engaged in manual labour" should be abolished, and that the Court may have a dispensing power. with regard to the notice of an accident required by the Act. Finally, the Committee recom- mend the extension of the Act to all employments, including seamen and including manual labour. As to seamen, however, a quite unnecessary and very dangerous limitation is intro- duced to accidents in home ports, or if elsewhere, to those arising from defective equipment. The evidencs in favour of the absolute inclusion of seamen was overwhelming. The only argument against it was that as ships go abroad for six months or a year, the owner has not the same power of supervision as on land. But the answer was unanswerable, that an owner exercises just as much or as little supervision over a captain of a ship as a mineowner does over the manager of a mine. Because Lord Londonderry is Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, no one suggests that he should not be liable for an explosion in one of his mines in England. It is his duty to choose com- petent managers, and he can no more, interfere or practically supervise them than a shipowner can an absent captain.. It is reasonable that he who takes the profit should bear the respon- sibility of accident to those who win the profit, whether he looks after the work himself or delegates it to others. Why this principle once admitted should have been limited by the Committee to home ports, it is hard to see, except that they did not get to the consideration of the question till June 11th. The only possible operation of the limit is to give more encouragement to the employment of foreigners and foreign ports in preference to British.