Saturday, 24 October 2009

Jute in Dundee

Work in Progress - From LSHG Newsletter, Spring 2009

The Management of Decline:The case of the jute industry in Dundee

Following an award from the Leverhulme Trust a new research project looking at the industrial decline of
Dundee’s jute industry has recently begun. The project seeks to examine the political economy of industrial decline, the interface between business and government in the management of industrial decline and the relationship between capital and labour in the formation of and management of class relations in an industry facing declining employment and production.
Dundee’s jute industry, once the major employer in the city, by the end of the twentieth century was no more.
Jute, a coarse textile used in a range of industrial applications from bags to carpet backing was in the late nineteenth century the source of enormous wealth in the city. Dundee became a source of large flows of outward investment into American railroads in the late nineteenth century as jute’s profits soared. However, from its peak in the First World War the industry saw declining production and employment until its collapse in the 1970s and 1980s and final demise in the late 1990s.
Historically, all market economies have faced perennial problems of managing the decline of particular industrial sectors as competitive conditions shift. The historical development of such management has been especially complex where the industry is highly geographically concentrated and/or the competition arises from imports from states politically linked to the importing country. In the case of jute, both of these conditions obtain: the industry was highly concentrated in the Dundee area, and the main source of competition was the exports of India, a member of the British Empire/Commonwealth. Much of the decline of the industry was broadly co-incident with Britain’s post-war ‘golden age’. From 20,000 in 1948, employment fell to 8,000 by 1975. However, as this project already highlights the historiography of ‘inevitable’ decline is at best problematic and at worst simply inadequate to explain the history of the industry. The industry’s profitability and development was managed throughout the post-war period, with price controls agreed between government and employers protecting profit levels. Levels of profitability were such that diversification into artificial fibres and, indeed into the oil industry in the 1970s was possible. Thus for much of the period of ‘decline’ the industry was highly profitable. The industry’s relationships with government seemed to focus more upon seeking mechanisms to protect it from new entrants than preventing closures. Thus the project seeks to examine critically the periodisation of decline and the effectiveness of government business relationships in the management of decline when it indeed did take place.
Employment in the industry, and wider city, was also subject to careful management. The early post-war years saw limits placed upon inward investment aimed at protecting the industry’s access to a workforce. Despite limited alternative employment opportunities jute work remained throughout the post-war period a form of employment of last resort for many of Dundee’s working class. Here gender plays an important part in explaining the history of the industry’s working class and the wider working class of Dundee. The jute industry was dominated by large-scale female employment until the introduction of changed shift patterns and changes to the production artificial fibres saw the workforce become characterised by male employment. The project seeks to understand these changing dynamics and the impact attempts to manage these changes had on Dundee and its working classes.
Low pay, poor working conditions and high levels of unemployment made the jute industry, by the Second
World War, notorious as an industry to avoid wherever possible. Trade unions had achieved recognition by the interwar period and women’s participation within the union seems significant. Certainly, as with other textile cities, women were highly visible in the history of the areas. The Second World War, as elsewhere, gave new opportunities to women that they were reluctant to give up after the return to peace time. Debates over labour, its extent, use and pay levels thus differed significantly with other manufacturing industries in the post-war era. The double burden of work and home played a prominent part of women’s lives within the city. Within the wider politics of Dundee women’s role is more hidden. Women’s visibility is far lower in the candidates for election to parliament or the council. Similarly, the emergence of the welfare state is a significant factor in the history of the city and the industry. Dundee’s high levels of social housing, its nursery provision and wider welfare state are all aspects of the management of the decline of the industry that require a fuller understanding. Thus the project seeks to place the role of women and changes in their position within the industry in the wider context of the growth of a wider working class representation and the development of a welfare state in order to understand the management of industrial and social change in the city.
Finally, globalisation and Britain’s colonial past plays a major part in the history of jute. With the raw material originating from India, and after independence Pakistan and Bangladesh, Scotland’s imperial connections are of significance in the history of the jute industry. Jute was an early example of a globalised industry with the impact of international competition keenly felt from early on.
Here the project seeks to examine the mechanisms through which international competition was regulated
and the mechanisms through which the industry retained its profitability until the end of the twentieth century.

Those involved in the project; Carlo Morelli, Jim Tomlinson, Valerie Wright and Alexis Wearmouth
would welcome contact from researchers interested in this work. Carlo Morelli can be
contacted at

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