Masters and Servants Act

The Courier Wednesday 27 September 1854 p. 3.

|We publish the following letter, received by a Member of Council, in reference to the Masters and Servants' Act. now under the consideration of the Council.|

Hobart Town, September 21st, 1854.

Honourable Sir, 'Tis now fifteen months since I left the shores of Britain to seek a new home in this colony, and I had a hope, notwithstanding the unfavourable reports in circulation, that on the abolition of transportation, the penal character of the island would be changed—that penal laws, which for many years had cast a terrible gloom on one of the fairest spots of God's creation, would be succeeded by measures of a more hopeful, a more genial and encouraging nature. But, alas ! with inexpressible sorrow, disgust, and indignation, I find that those who, from supposed patriotic motives, clamoured so loudly for the discontinuance of this, as a receptacle for the banished, are exhibiting as much patriotic zeal in forging chains for the free sons and daughters of toil, who, untainted by crime and disposed to habits of industry, are allured here by reports grossly exaggerated, and by hopes never to be realised. 

The debates which have taken place on the aforesaid Act exhibit so much heartless cruelty that, as a free servant, my heart aches when I reflect on the condition to which my class will be subjected when the said enactment is in operation. Punishment, " more severe by far," is to be inflicted on helpless, friendless girls, for what is termed " minor offences," than is inflicted at home on the ruffian who commits an unprovoked and brutal assault—punishment equal to that inflicted on the common felon is to be meted out to the industrious daughters of England, Ireland, and Scotland, on the commission of what is termed "minor offences." And may I not enquire, Sir, what is to constitute minor offences ? A servant finds herself in the employ of a hard master or mistress; galled by tyranny she leaves her employ, is arrested, and thrown into a prison among the vilest of the vile. at the expiration of her sentence she is returned to her tyrant master to complete the terms of her engagement ; her bondage becomes harder, she again leaves, and is again committed to prison.

Finally, broken in spirits, and indifferent to future prospects, she becomes reckless of character, and another name is added to the already long list of outcasts that scourge society. In such a case, the fact of leaving a heartless, tyrannical employer is, I suppose, a " minor offence," punished by a maximum penalty of twenty pounds, or three months' incarceration in a felons' gaol. On the other hand, an employer finds that his servant is not equal to his wishes ; he rids himself of his engagement by discharging her against her wish. What remedy does the law provide? The poor, untutored, friendless girl is told to seek her remedy in law proceedings for the recovery of her wages supposing any to be due ; but no provi- sion is made to enable her to recover for the whole period of her engagement, at least as far as I am informed. Now if the girl who violates her agreement is to be punished by imprisonment, surely the employer, with larger means and larger powers, ought to meet with similar punishment on breach of his agreement. Were the scales of justice fairly balanced, such would be the case; but—but—

Sir, what will not constitute a " minor offence " against the penal statute known as " The Masters and Servants Act?" To complain of ill-treatment is to meet with a charge of insolence. The power of wealth preponderates over poverty—the servant is adjudged guilty of a minor offence, and in default of penalty is committed for three months. But, says one of our legislators, good servants need not fear the consequences of severe laws. Would it be wise to make a simple breach of agreement a capital offence, because good servants would not, make any such breach ? If so, the highest offences at present known would more frequently be committed. Dis- proportionate punishment leads to higher crimes. This has been felt at home. The criminal code has been modified, and crime has diminished. The barbarous character of the ACT in question places every servant, completely in the power of their employers.

The slave owner, in the Southern States of America, inflicts a certain number of lashes for disobedience. The employers of servants can subject those placed in their power to long periods of close confinement in this lovely island. Yes ! in a Legislative Assembly, in a civilized country, the question was debated " whether female-free female-servants, found guilty of a breach of agreement with their employers, should, or not, be adjudged and sentenced to solitary confinement during the period of their incarnation ! "

Sir, such punishment is inflicted only on the most hardened offender at home, and the people of England will learn with astonishment that such a suggestion was mooted in an assembly which has exhibited so much anxiety to change the penal character of this colony. The mitigated form of the clause relating to female servants, and the introduction of a pecuniary penalty, is nothing more, nothing less, in my opinion, than a farce. For how can servants newly-arrived in the colony meet such penalty ? A penalty of £5 was the highest that could be inflicted by a police magistrate in England when I left for an aggravated assault ; but £20 here is a mild penalty for a poor servant guilty of a. " minor offence," or in default, three 'months' imprisonment. In short, there is so much to alarm even the best disposed servant, that every one that can escape from the colony where so barbarous an enactment exists, will do so speedily.

For myself and wife, we are at present in the hands of an honourable employer, who would shrink from an un- worthy action. We are held by no bonds ; no engagements, save and except those mutual obligations which should ever be held sacred, both by employers and the employed. But in the course of events, should we leave our employer, we will shun, as we would Satan himself, any and every engagement which may present in this colony. A special agreement of a civil character is the only one into which we shall enter. Sir, in the midst of all my despondency, I am cheered by a conviction that few, very few employers will take advantage of the cruel power which the measure in question places in their hands. I have a more exalted notion of the character of employers in Fair Tasmania, than to suppose that they will use that power unfairly. But Egypt had a Pharoah, and so may Tasmania; and power in such hands only produces instruments of torture, to be used on those subjected to their control.

A meeting of the serving class ought to be held, and the details of the measure submitted to consideration. An earnest protest against its enactment would doubtless be the result.

I remain, Sir,
Yours very humbly and obediently,