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Agricultural Labourer


AGRICULTURAL LABOURER. An agricultural la bourer is a person, male or female, employed by an occupier of agricultural land. In America and some other countries the term "hired man" is generally used. In Scotland the term "farm-serv ant" is equivalent to that of "agricultural labourer" in England where the alternative term "farm worker" has recently come also into common usage. Conditions of employment vary widely. The contract of service may be by the day, the week, the month, the half-year, or the year. Remuneration for services may be wholly in cash, or partly in cash and partly in kind. In Scotland, in the greater part of Wales and in the north of England the majority of agricultural labourers live in their employer's house or in quarters specially provided for them on the farm. They receive wages in addition and in England and Wales the amount which may be reckoned in respect of board and lodging as part payment of wages is fixed. Where the engagement is on such terms the contract of service is usually for a year, or, in some cases, for a half-year. Over the greater part of England the ordinary contract of service is by the week at a fixed cash wage. (See AGRICUL TURAL WAGES.) In addition to agricultural labourers permanently employed there are large numbers of men and women who are employed only for short periods to assist in particular operations, such as corn-harvesting, fruit-picking, hop-picking, etc. In countries such as Canada where wheat and other corn-crops are grown on an extensive scale it is usual to engage additional men for the period of harvest. In England a large number of men and women are engaged in the districts where hops are grown for picking the crop, and in some of the districts where fruit and vegetables are culti vated a similar practice prevails. Persons so employed are often not agricultural labourers in the strict sense but are in many cases townsfolk unskilled in farm work.


Returns collected by the Ministry of Agricul ture, from all occupiers of agricultural holdings in England and Wales show that there were, in June, 1926, 794,899 agricultural labourers employed, of whom 654,361 were classified as "regular workers" and 140,538 as "casual workers." The term casual work er has a wide significance. It includes not only those employed on unskilled seasonal work for short periods but also large numbers whose chief occupation is farm work but who find em ployment in other occupations, such as roadmending, in the winter when the demand for labour on the farm is at its lowest.

Work on the farm is necessarily dependent on the time of year and the weather. It was formerly the practice to suspend men (to "stand them off" as the phrase ran) in wet weather. As la bour became more mobile and migration from the villages became common, employment on farms tended to be more stable and every farmer aimed at keeping a permanent staff all the year round, engaging casual workers only in times of greatest pressure. The practice of "standing off" in wet weather was gradually dis continued, and, in effect, finally abolished by the Agricultural Wages Board established in 1917.

The "gang" system of organizing casual and seasonal labour was general in the last century but it gradually fell into disrepute. Under this system a number of men and women were collected by a gangmaster and travelled from farm to farm for seasonal operations. The gangmaster made a contract with the farmer to do certain work for a specified amount and divided the payment among the members of the gang. The system obviously lent itself to abuse by unscrupulous gangmasters while the association of men and women for considerable periods without fixed abodes and often without decent accommodation either by day or night led to scandal and disorder.


The popular belief that the work of the agricultural labour is "unskilled" is not justified by the facts. Adam Smith compared agricultural and industrial labour thus : "Many inferior branches of country labour require much more skill and experience than the greater part of mechanic trades. The man who works upon brass and iron works with instruments and materials of which the temper is always the same, or very nearly the same. But the man who ploughs the ground with a team of horses or oxen works with instruments of which the health, strength and temper are very different on different occasions. The condition of the material which he works upon too is as variable as that of the instruments he works with, and both require to be managed with much judgment and discretion." The introduction also of numer ous machines and implements in farm work calls for greater versatility and resourcefulness on the part of the farm worker to-day.

Those who are regarded as specially skilled in farm work, and are usually paid a higher wage than the ordinary labourer, are those who have charge of stock. Their additional remuneration is partly in respect of longer hours but it is also paid in consider ation of their knowledge and experience and of the responsibility placed on them. Shepherds are generally the most highly paid men on a farm, and where the flocks are large the responsibility placed on them is great. During the lambing season they not only have to be in constant attendance day and night but they must possess some elementary knowledge of veterinary science. It is a common practice to give shepherds a bonus, in addition to their wages, on the number of lambs successfully reared by them.

Men who have charge of cattle are termed in various districts cattlemen, stockmen or cowmen. In Norfolk there are also classes known as bullock-tenders and sheep-tenders who receive generally the same rate of wages as cowmen. Men who have charge of horses are termed carters, waggoners, horsemen or teamsmen.

On the larger farms there is usually a foreman (termed in Scot land a grieve) who is responsible for the general oversight of the men and the organisation of labour. His position and emoluments vary according to the size of the farm, the number of men under him and the extent to which the employer himself takes an active part in the management of the farm.


The combination of workers for the advance ment of their economic interests and particularly for collective bargaining with their employers has taken comparatively little permanent hold of agricultural labourers in any country-. In England, apart from a few spasmodic local efforts, the first organ ized attempt to establish an agricultural trade union was made in 1872 under the leadership of Joseph Arch. A National Agricul tural Labourers' Union was formed which in a short time enrolled about 7o,000 members. In the face of strenuous and organized opposition from farmers it soon collapsed and no serious attempt to revive it was made until the beginning of the present century. In igii the National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers' Union was started and by the end of 1913 had a membership of nearly 12,000. The establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board and its district committees, in which organization agricultural labourers were given by act of parliament equal rights and repre sentation with farmers, gave an impetus to the organization of farm-workers. In 1919 it was reckoned that about half the agri cultural labourers were enrolled, but after 1921 the membership again rapidly diminished and in 1926 not more than about 6 per cent. retained their membership.

Agricultural labourers are not included in the Unemployment Insurance act. In 1926 a departmental committee recommended, by a majority of one, the establishment of a special system of unemployment insurance for agricultural labourers in England and Wales, but the recommendation was not adopted by the Govern ment. (R. H. R.) United States.--Over the United States as a whole there is less than one-half hired agricultural labourer per farm. The total number of farms is approximately 6,75o,000, while the number of farm-labourers varies from about 1,5oo,000 in January to at least 3,000,000 in the cropping seasons. The January figure repre sents mainly the permanently employed—the class that makes agricultural labour its steady occupation.

The relatively small number of farm-labourers is due to the fact that the typical American farm is a family enterprise. Ordi narily the family is large. In some regions there is also consider able exchange of work among farmers on adjacent farms. The number of hired labourers is steadily diminishing, as the in creasing knowledge of agricultural science and the perfection of agricultural machinery constantly augment the production per man. At certain times of the year much casual labour is employed, as for cotton picking, truck planting and harvesting, fruit pick ing, and wheat harvesting. Except in the case of wheat, the work tends to be done by families of migratory workers. There is an excess of this type of labour, wages (at piece rates) are extremely low, and living conditions are deplorable.

The extent to which labour is employed throughout the year varies with the region and the type of farming practised. Dairying and live stock husbandry, coupled with diversified cropping, make for a fairly uniform employment of labour at all seasons. New England and New York have had for generations a tradition in favour of permanent employment of farm-labour, with a strong preference for keeping the same persons year after year. The tendency has been for the farmer to assume a patriarchal attitude toward his help. The unmarried farm-labourer used to occupy a real place in all the life of the farm family. In early days the comparatively high wages and low prices for land—when an acre could be purchased with a single day's labour—attracted a fairly high type of labour to the farms. With the increased price of land, the growth of opportunities in the cities, and increasing dis like of labourers for absolutism in their employers, the type of farm-labour has doubtless declined. There is also a tendency to depart from the custom of making the hired man practically a member of the family, although the old practice still prevails to a large extent, especially in the East.

The average prevailing farm wage rate for the United States on July 1, 1939, was $22.75 a month with board, and $33.73 a month without board. The highest wage rates—$43.18 and $64.04 respectively—are found in the Pacific States, and the lowest— $16.47 and $23.57 respectively—in the East South Central States. A large proportion of regularly employed farm-labourers are single men.

These almost invariably receive board. Married men usually are supplied with a house or cabin and with some such perquisites as fuel, some food, use of horses and farm tools and garden space. Not infrequently a man and his wife are both employed on the farm—he at farm work, she in domestic matters. Hours of labour on the farm average considerably longer per day, at least through out the cropping seasons, than in industrial life, although, except in harvest and similar rush times, there is freedom from the pres sure characteristic of factory work.

American farm labour is prevailingly unorganized. The oldest existing organizations are probably the Sheep Shearers' Union of North America and the United Confederation of Mexican Peasants and Workers of the State of California. The _Industrial Workers of the World at one time enrolled many farm labourers. The at titude of the New Deal toward labour stimulated organization of agricultural workers, chiefly migratory, and a number of local unions are recognized by the A.F. of L. or the C.I.O. The unions are strongest in Arizona, California, New Jersey, the Northwest, and the sugar-beet regions of the Great Plains. The principal aims are higher wages, better working and living conditions, and amendment of the Social Security law to include agricultural labour. Operating farmers generally are hostile to unions, and violent strikes have occurred, notably in New Jersey, Ohio and California. (N. A. C.)

farm, labour, labourers, employed and wages