The Harvester Case is a common phrase used to describe the legal battle in which the Excise Act of 1906 was tested in court and the meaning of ‘fair and reasonable’ wages was defined for unskilled Australian workers. The decision made by Henry B. Higgins as Judge of the trial found that Australian workers entitled to ‘fair and reasonable’ wages should be paid enough to make provision for “light, clothes, boots, furniture, utensils, rates, life insurance, savings, accident or benefit societies, loss of employment, union pay, books and newspapers, tram or train fares, sewing machine, mangle, school requisites, amusements and holidays, liquors, tobacco sickness or death, religion or charity.” Commonly summed up in the provision for a “wife and three children” in “frugal comfort” this landmark case set the prescient of Australian employment in a legal framework that existed beyond the scope of union negotiated wages.
H. B. Higgins, the judge who closed this case was a staunch advocate of a White Australia, in his 1902 article “Australian Ideals” he identifies the struggle between white workers and foreign scabs.
Where does Kanaka labour find it’s chief support? Where do you find most advocates of the Chinese and Japanese Immigration? Is it not in the bourgeois chambers of Commerce, Shire Councils, Stock Exchanges, Agricultural Societies – bodies which throughout Australia seem to be dominated by profitmakers as against wage-earners?
Where do you find the chief opponents of coloured aliens? Obviously, among the labouring classes the latter have, with a truer instinct resulting, no doubt, from a more intimate experience and closer contact discerned not merely the danger of lower wages, but the danger to our national character.
The admixture of such differing types of civilisation is bad for both. Human life reaches its lowest degradation where two civilisations meet and cannot fully blend. The rich man and his children have not to rub shoulders with the coloured alien, as the poor man and his children have – have not to compete with the alien for a living. Therefore the rich man in this matter represents the anarchic spirit – the spirit which makes one’s personal ease and comfort, and wealth the chief end of life.
The Harvester case read on its own without context does not do adequate justice to the over-reaching theme and subject to what is the cause for a White Workingman’s Paradise. The trade union movement in the shearers strikes, wharfer & seamen’s strikes and the greater crusade against Asian furniture manufacturing in Australia put in no-uncertain terms the threat that non-European migrants presented; a real and imminent threat to the value of labour and working conditions.
H. B. Higgins continues in ‘Australian Ideals’;
What is the ideal before us in our Factories Acts and similar legislation — such as laws for conciliation and arbitration in labour disputes. It is a nobler physical and moral manhood and womanhood — a free, healthy, stalwart, self-respecting race.
When we aim; at fair wages, fair hours and fair conditions of labour, we take as our post-plate; that profits are of less importance than the character of our people.
As in the case of the coloured alien question, it is the national character of the future generations in Australia that is involved, The pale and overworked, underpaid, and underfed makers of shirts or boots, not merely are stunted and miserable in their own lives, but their offspring also suffer; and our society suffers.
Higgins in the Harvester Case Decision made a clear articulated case that ‘fair and reasonable’ wages are what are necessary for a worker to exist in a civilised community. (‘I cannot think of any other standard appropriate than the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community.’) The idealism of a society bearing greater value than the margins of the profiteering bourgeois was the underlying principle behind so many of the founding articles of Australia’s political history.
Today’s economy begins to show signs of memory; the casualization and seasonal work which is so common now to unskilled workers resembles the same conditions seen in the Harvester Case. The shearers stood against ‘freedom of contract’ which was the business practice of individual contracts for all workers of varying degrees of wage and conditions – might sound okay on the surface but was really an excuse to break union control over the shearing sheds and allow for the introduction of Chinese slave-labour.
“The stand made by the shearers and shed employees in 1891 was not only against a reduction of wages and an attempt to introduce “freedom of contract,” but was principally against the introduction of Chinese labor.”
W. G. Spence – Founder of the AWU & ALP
Today we see a similar story, foreign workers willing to work akin to a bowl of rice per day at less standards, the slow decay of Australian standards of work and craftsmanship. The use of ‘labour hire’ companies only worsens the situation, creating an economic climate in which workers can be used and disposed of with no right of recourse and no stability in employment. This produces enourmous insecurity and fluctuations for the workforce and leads to the continual dissolution of the Australian working class.
The Wage case and its surrounding context is important for Australian Nationalists – The circumstances are so closely aligned with our current situation. We have been provided the groundwork by our forebears for a struggle that is worth fighting for. The advocacy and advancement of Australian workers and their families in the context of immigration and industrial law – two incredibly interwoven subjects that have always been the focal point for genuine Nationalist action in Australia’s history.