At a meeting held in Wellington, Marianne Tasker attempted to establish a domestic workers’ union. Central to its demands was the call for a 68-hour working week. From the late 1880s to the 1930s domestic service was the single largest category of paid employment for women. ‘Domestics’ could be found in more than 15,000 dwellings around the country.
A common complaint was that ‘good help was hard to find’. The idea of domestic service had never sat well with the ‘free-born colonial young woman’. This was hardly surprising, given the working conditions most domestics endured: a 16-hour day, 6½ days a week, and all for low wages.
An 1896 attempt to legislate for domestics to have a half-day off each week was defeated. Edward Tregear, the head of the fledgling Department of Labour, recognised that the ideals of domestic service were ‘feudal and medieval’. However, he was also quick to point out that having too many girls working in factories would be ‘fatal to our future domestic comfort’.
The labour reforms of the Liberal government had by the late 1890s earned New Zealand a reputation as a ‘working man’s paradise’. A 68-hour working week hardly seemed an unreasonable demand. New Zealanders had after all been celebrating Labour Day and the struggle for an eight-hour working day since 1890. Tasker and her supporters wanted to use the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act to force employers to comply with their demands.
Tasker believed a union would improve working conditions and help attract more young women into domestic service. This would address a common complaint of employers. Seeing no benefit from a unionised workforce, employers formed their own organisation to confront the prospective union.
Public figures also waded into the issue. The wife of Wellington’s mayor complained that a union would result in the loss of ‘loving service’. The domestic workers who complained about their lot, she concluded, were ‘mainly those who were incompetent’. Women’s groups that might have been expected to support better conditions for their ‘sisters’ also struggled to accept the need for a union. Domestic service was seen as ideal preparation for marriage; ‘no girl can do better or higher work than that of making a home happy and comfortable’ (even if it wasn’t her own home).
Ironically, it was having a domestic servant on call that gave many middle-class women the freedom to escape the confines of their home environment. This freedom was often used to pursue interests that were seen as improving New Zealand society and the position of women in it.
An administrative blunder gave opponents of the union an opportunity to nip it in the bud. In mid-1907 Marianne Tasker left New Zealand to visit Britain. The acting secretary failed to re-register the union and the Registrar of Industrial Unions cancelled its registration. To add insult to injury, the Registrar justified his decision on the grounds that a domestic was not a ‘worker’, because ‘domestic servants were kept for comfort and convenience’.