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What were trade boards?

The Trade Board Act was passed in 1909. It introduced a legally enforceable minimum wage (described as a "living wage" in the House of Commons debateLink opens in a new window) in four 'sweated' industries - chainmaking, lace finishing, paper box making and ready-made and wholesale bespoke tailoring. Additional industries came under the regulation of trade boards in subsequent years.

Members of the trade boards were divided into three groups - representatives of the workers (often trade unionists), representatives of the employers, and "appointed members" - representatives appointed by the government (through the Board of Trade). Workers and employers would have the same number of representatives on the board, whilst the appointed members would be slightly fewer in number.

To set a minimum wage rate, the trade board would give notice of the proposed rate, receive and assess objections sent in by employers and employed, and then issue a notice of the fixed rate. The fixed rate should then be confirmed (within six months) by a Board of Trade order. If the government failed to confirm it, the rate would be suspended. The minimum rate of pay would be regularly revised (up or down) by the trade boards to reflect changes in the cost of living and the state of trade. Employers could legally pay less than the minimum rate if they could persuade the trade board that an employee was unable to do the work of an average worker - permits for a reduced wage were usually given for workers who were regarded as having physical or psychological disabilities.

In 1945 Trade Boards were renamed Wages Councils (under the Wages Council Act) and continued to set industry-specific minimum wages until their abolition in 1993 (under the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act).

For more detailed information about individual Trade Boards, try our Trade Board A-Z - this provides information about the individual Trade Boards (including their dates of formation) and details of relevant sources held at the Modern Records Centre.

Contemporary explanations of the work of trade boards are included in the following documents:

Memorandum explaining the principal provisions of the Trade Boards Act, 1909Link opens in a new window

Board of Trade outline of the new legislation, issued in December 1909.

The Trade Boards ActLink opens in a new window

Article written c.1909 by J.J. Mallon, Secretary of the National Anti-Sweating League.

The Working of the Trade Boards Act in Great Britain and IrelandLink opens in a new window

Article written by Constance Smith for the Journal of Political Economy, July 1914.

Trade Boards Acts, 1909 and 1918: Note on the principal changes effected by the Act of 1918Link opens in a new window

Memorandum issued in October 1918 by the Office of Trade Boards.

Report to the Minister of Labour of the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the Working and Effects of the Trade Board ActLink opens in a new window

The 1922 report of the Cave Committee. It includes a historical overview of trade boards and recommendations for reform.

Trade Boards and the Cave ReportLink opens in a new window

Trades Union Congress response to the report of the Cave Committee. It includes a brief historical note on trade boards.

Wage Councils Bill, 1945Link opens in a new window

Record of the introduction of the Bill into the House of Commons, including a historical summary by Ernest Bevin of the development of Trade Boards (available through 'Historic Hansard').