By the late 1800s New Zealand had factories that made biscuits, coaches, saddlery and harnesses, furniture, clothing, textile bags, boots and shoes, rope and twine, sausage skins and violin strings, and which processed meat, dairy products, grain, flax, sugar and tobacco.
In some sectors, factories were the dominant workplace. But other kinds of workplaces continued to exist alongside. For example in the clothing sector factories and traditional tailoring and dressmaking businesses (known as the ‘bespoke’ sector) co-existed.
Agricultural processing factories, 1880s
The most dramatic rise in factory production in the later 19th century occurred in the processing of agricultural products. The development of refrigeration from 1882 created many small and medium-sized factories to process meat, and make butter and cheese for local sale and export. The number of dairy plants rose from 36 in 1885 to 247 in 1900. These small and medium-sized plants relied in turn on engineering firms and their factories to provide the necessary machinery.
By 1900 industries employing significant numbers included printing (3,134 workers), boot and shoe manufacturing (2,696 workers across 126 boot and shoe factories), clothing (2,512 workers across 21 factories) and meat preserving and freezing (2,221 workers across 34 works).
During the 1880s the public belief that factories meant poor work conditions and the exploitation of women and children strengthened. The ‘sweating evil’ – long hours of work, poor conditions and very poor wages – was linked particularly with the clothing industry, in which large numbers of women and girls were employed. A royal commission in 1890, which became known as the Sweating Commission, investigated factory labour practices. William Pember Reeves, minister of labour in the Liberal government, introduced the Factories acts of 1891 and 1894, which required all factories to be registered, and set up the Department of Labour and its factory inspection branch.
Anglican women set up the Girls Friendly Society in 1883 to be a ‘great boon and safeguard’ to the ‘hundreds of girls employed in boot and cloth factories’. 1 The society provided a social base and support for its members, but membership was never high. Many girls enjoyed the ‘attractions of factory life’ – its sociability and the independence it offered.
The new department’s inspections found New Zealand’s factories to be generally good, particularly the larger ones. Like the Sweating Commission, the inspectors found little evidence of exploitation of women and children. Where it was found, it was often in clothing factories.
By the end of the 19th century the department increasingly focused on the conditions in which men, the majority of factory employees, worked. Long hours of overtime, often unpaid, were the greatest concern.
Reeves also introduced the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894. The act made arbitration of disputes between employees and unions compulsory, and was intended to stimulate union membership. This act introduced conciliation boards, the Court of Arbitration and registration of trade unions. The act became the cornerstone of industrial relations in New Zealand until the 1980s.
Many skilled workers were increasingly concerned that the mechanisation associated with factories ‘diluted’ or reduced the skill needed to make items. Workers in some industries formed or joined unions, wanting to maintain some control over the work process. In industries such as clothing and boot-making, where factory and ‘bespoke’ sectors existed side by side, the factory workers unionised to a far greater extent than the bespoke workers.