Wages in the 1930s

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Wages in the 1930s
Heavy industry was badly hit by the Depression. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The 1930s were a time of economic crisis for Britain, particularly in industrial areas in Scotland, Wales and the North of England. Despite the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, wages stayed relatively stable, even increasing in some industries over the course of the period. Like any other single economic indicator, however, the wage figures do not tell the whole story.

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Agrictultural wage rates

Wages varied from industry to industry and job to job in Britain, as anywhere else, but some jobs had legally established minimum wages. For example, the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act 1924 established a base rate of pay for agricultural workers. In early 1930 this was £1 11s (shillings) 8d (pence) for a week of just over 50 hours, or roughly a shilling an hour. This rate declined slightly in the early 1930s, falling as low as £1 10s 8d in 1993-4, but had increased again by the end of the decade, standing at £1 19s 5 1/2 d by October 1939.

Industrial wage rates

Wages in the industrial sector followed the same general pattern as the agricultural sector. In 1930 the average wage for a timework labourer in the engineering field was just under a shilling per hour; it dipped in 1933-4, then climbed again to around 1s 2d by 1938. In some cases, wage cuts were more severe. Public sector pay cuts announced in 1931 reduced wages by 10 to 20%. News of these pay cuts sparked a naval mutiny at Invergordon in Scotland; lower-ranking sailors, already making less than half what workers in the private sector made, could ill afford the cuts.

Real wages

The amount of money in an employee's pay packet is not the only measure of earnings. Economists prefer to use "real wages" to discuss earnings; real wages measure the ratio between pay and prices. From this perspective, wages in the 1930s performed well. Even when wages fell, prices fell faster, and wages recovered much more quickly. In 1932, wages were at 96.3 % of their 1930 level, while prices were at 91.1%, meaning that real wages had actually risen. By 1938, real wages were at 107.7% of their 1930 level.

Gender and unemployment

Most workers in heavy industry and agriculture, who were male, were paid proportionately more than female workers in the same or other sectors. In October 1938, the average hourly wage for adult males was just under 1s 6d, nearly double the average hourly wage for women, which was 9d.

In addition, wage statistics ignore the high levels of unemployment, particularly in those areas of the country hardest-hit by the decline of heavy industries such as shipbuilding. In 1931 and 1932, average wages dipped slightly, but unemployment skyrocketed, hitting 25% in 1932. It did not return to its 1929 level until 1937. While the numbers show that wages for high for those who had jobs, conditions were severe for those without.

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