Sweating was the derogatory term used to describe the exploitation of workers, especially of women and children, who worked for low wages and long hours in poorly ventilated and insanitary factories and workshops or undertook outwork in their own homes. Insanitary workplaces were first regulated in Tasmania by the Women and Children Employment Act (1884), but the police rarely enforced it. In the 1890s newspapers in Launceston and Hobart revealed sweating in the tailoring and boot trades. In Hobart the Rev Archibald Turnbull lectured on 'The Curse of Sweating' in 1896 without result.

In 1903 the appointment of Ethel Keach as the first female inspector resulted in few improvements, but the situation changed in 1906 when sixteen-year-old Olive Coulson stole money from her employer and from shame committed suicide. This led the Labor Party to campaign for a royal commission into the working conditions and wages of workers. The evidence gathered by the commission was so damaging that it was not officially printed, which for many confirmed the worst allegations. No changes were made until Bishop John Edward Mercer took up the cause, describing working conditions for women and girls as 'little less than slow murder'. His campaign garnered wide support and resulted in new legislation. The Factories Act (1910) required a more complete registration and inspection of factories. The Wages Boards Act (1910) established boards for individual crafts to fix minimum rates of pay and maximum hours. Despite this legislation, sweating took some time to eradicate, especially while businessmen like Henry Jones remained wedded to piece-work.

Further reading: S Petrow, 'Sanatorium of the south?', MA thesis, UT, 1984; P Hart, 'The Rev. Archibald Turnbull, agitator', THRAPP 12/2, 1964; R Davis, 'Bishop John Edward Mercer', UT Occasional Paper 34, Hobart, 1982; B Brown, I excel!, Hobart, 1991.

Stefan Petrow