Labour, in a general sense, implies the exertion of human strength in the performance of any kind of work.
The price of labour has, at all times, varied; and, as the poorer classes feel, with additional rigour, every evil arising from the pressure of the times, different expedients have been devised, with a view to alleviate their burdens, supply their wants, and render them more comfortable.
In the middle of the fifteenth century, the pay of a labourer per day, was 3d.; and wheat cost from, 5s. to 5s. 6d. per quarter.
In the earlier part of the sixteenth century, the price of labour rose to 3 1/2d. and that of a quarter of wheat to 7s. 6d. About the middle of the 17th century, the pay of a la bourer, upon an average, was (In Essex) 13d.; and corn had risen to 40s. per quarter.
Toward the latter end of the 18th century, the daily pay of a labourer was from 14d. to 18d. in the country, and from 2s. to 2s. 6d. in the metropolis; while the price of wheat was 48s. per quarter.- We forbear to state the average pay of labour during the late exorbitant prices of grain, and every other article of food ; when all proportion between merit and reward appeared to have been suspended.
The payment of daily wages, however, serves but imperfectly to ascertain the real price of labour; as a considerable portion of work is performed by the piece ; so that a labourer in general earns from 3d. to 6d. per day more than by the common pay. For, without this, Or some similar method, the reward of labour would be inadequate to the maintenance of those numerous persons, who possess no other means of providing for their infirm wives, or hapless children. And we conceive, that if their wages could be so regulated, as to rise and fall with the price of wheat, considerable benefit would thus result to society.
The rapid increase of poor-rates throughout the kingdom, can be attributed only to the low and insufficient recompense of labour, in consequence of which, the poor are obliged to resort to the parish for relief. Indeed, when the average price of wheat for the last ten years is considered, we presume not to exceed the limits of moderation in saying, that no country labourer, in the full possession of his health and strength, ought to be paid less than the value of a half-peck loaf per day, according to the price of wheat, and a proportionable sum by piece-work. In populous towns, however, an addition of 20 per cent, should be allowed, if vegetables and butchers* meat are sold at the present unreasonable prices.
The curious and philanthropic reader, who feels an interest in this popular inquiry, will be fully gratified by a perusal of Mr". Davies's Case of Labourers in Husbandry stated and considered, etc. (4to. pp.200, 10s. 6d. Robinsons, 1795), and Sir F. M. Eden's State of the Poor, etc. (3 vols. 4to. 31. 3s. White, 1797), in which the situation of the labouring classes is clearly developed.
By the 2d and 3d Edw. VI. c. 15, all labourers who combine or conspire together concerning their work or wages, incur a penalty of 10). for the first offence, which sum is doubled in case of repetition ; and, if the money be not paid, they are to be set in the pillory. Justices of the peace, and the stewards of courts leet, etc. are likewise empowered by the 4th Edw. IV. c. 1, to hear and determine all complaints relative to the non-payment of labourers' wages ; which, by the stat. 5 Eliz. c. 4, are to be annually settled for every county, by the sheriffs and justices of the peace, in every Easter session ; and in corporations, by the chief magistrates, under certain penalties in case of neglect. And such assize, when made, is ordered by the 1 Jac. I. c. 6, to be proclaimed.
Beside these laws, in behalf of the labouring classes, others have been enacted, for the benefit of the employer. "Thus, by the stat. 4 Eliz. all persons who are fit for labour, are compellable to serve, by the day, during the season of making hay, and the corn-harvest; but those labourers, who have obtained proper testimonials, are permitted to go into other counties. It is farther provided, that such labourers, from the middle of March to the middle of September, ought to work from 5 o'clock in the morning till7 or 8 at night; being allowed two hours for breakfast and dinner, and half an hour for repose during the three hottest months : in the other six months of the year, they are obliged to work from twilight to twilight, excepting one hour and a half for breakfast and dinner, on the penalty of forfeiting one penny (at present it should be two-pence) for every hour's absence.