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The hired man’s duties

Even 100 years ago finding and keeping farm labour wasn’t easy

This is part of an article that appeared in the historic farm publication the Nor’West Farmer in February 1920.

The question of working hours on the farm is one that nearly every reader of this paper is interested in. So this letter will serve as well as another to introduce the subject. A Saskatchewan reader, who quite clearly is a hired man, writes us as follows:

“Kindly let me know the duties of a hired man on the farm. I mean all the duties. During summer, when he is plowing or harrowing, is he supposed to look after only the horses he is driving, say he is driving four or six horses? When the farmer is driving four or six horses himself, making the total of about 10 or 12 head of horses in the barn, has a hired man to feed, clean and harness them all in the morning, while the farmer may be doing some repair or something else and cannot help him? Does he have to feed them at night if the farmer has some repair to do or has to treat wheat after he unhitches? How many hours per day does a hired man have to put in, in the field? If the hired man is not working with horses for a day or two does he have to feed the horses night and morning if the horses are in the barn?”

The duties of a hired man on the farm have never been set out by statute. Some people seem to think there are laws in the statutes covering the duties of employees in this or that particular, but such is not the case. A man on the farm is hired to work, and the first duty he owes to himself, his employer and his job, is to do the work in a satisfactory way. Unless at the time of hiring a definite agreement was entered into by the hired man and farmer, as to the number of hours that constituted a day’s work; who was to look after the horses; do the chores on Sunday; what holidays the man was to have and an understanding reached on the host of other minor matters that come up in the course of a season, the custom that prevails in the neighbourhood governs. If it is customary in that district for men to work 10 hours in the field, do the chores on Sunday, clean, harness and get ready the boss’s team in the morning, and take care of them at night as required, then if the hired man objected to doing these things that were customary, if he quit the job and took action to collect his wages, the court in all probability would be guided in reaching a decision by what was considered customary for hired men to do in that neighbourhood, and would so find.

Whether or not you, as a hired man, must do the work you mention depends altogether on the arrangements you made at hiring. Quite likely nothing was said about these matters at that time. If that is true we think you are not justified in objecting to doing the work mentioned, nor, do we think, would you be able to collect wages due, in case you quit the job for these reasons and asked for settlement.

As to the number of hours that should be worked in the field, that depends on circumstances. In the short harvest season most farmers work as many hours per day in the field as daylight permits; the spring, too, the hours per day in the field are usually as many as can be crowded in. In summer, while summerfallowing or doing other field work the hours on most farms are shorter. Custom, again, or your agreement with your employer governs the hours that are worked in the field. The same is true of taking care of the horses when standing idle in the stable for a few days. A hired man, naturally, is expected to take care of the horses. In fact, when you get to the bottom of the whole thing, a hired man’s duties are to work as directed by his employer.

Once in a while one runs across an employer who is never satisfied with the amount of work a man does or the hours he puts in, but on the average we do not think the hired man of today has much to kick about as regards to hours per day, the hardness of the work or the wages received.

The way for a hired man and employer to get along amicably is for each to have some regard for the reasonable privileges of the other and not be always searching for some little thing to make a fuss over. A hired man should not be expected to take care of his employer’s outfit of horses as well as his own, morning and night, if said employer while he was doing it, was lying in bed in the morning or resting on the porch in the evening. But if the boss was milking a stableful of cows in the morning and picking grain, for the next day’s seeding, at night, while his man was looking after the horses, it looks to us like a fairly even break, with the odds, in any, slightly in favour of the hired man.

It is rarely that a farmer and man arrange a definite agreement at the time of hiring. A common practice is to agree to a certain wage from the first of April, say, until freeze-up, and after the man starts work to find that his ideas and what the boss thinks about it do not always jibe in matters like the number of hours to be worked per day, the chores the man is to do, the holidays he is to have, when his wages are to be paid and so on. It would be better at the hiring if some of these things were talked over, and better still if some memoranda of the contract were written down and signed by both parties. Of course, one or the other, even at that, might come to regard the letter of the contract as of more importance than the spirit of the thing and make himself obnoxious to the other party by insisting on every little thing mentioned in it being scrupulously observed by the other, and assume that everything not mentioned should be decided in his favour.

But if two people, one of whom is of that nature, work together as employer and man, they will have trouble anyway, contract or no contract. Some men simply cannot get along with their employers and some employers have trouble with every man they hire, but on the average it is not so terrible hard to get along with people if one will just have some consideration for the fact that the other fellow is a human being with a mind of his own and some peculiarities that are especially his own.

Next spring, however, if you hire out again try fixing up an agreement. This suggestion is equally applicable to employers. It is not necessary to go to a lawyer or make out a regular legal contract. Just make note of the things you both agree to — hours, wages, etc., and each sign the paper and each keep a copy. Such a document may be of importance later in the season, of very much importance to one or both contracting parties. Besides it is the businesslike way of doing things.

As for the law about engagements on the farm, in a general way it is this: a man contracts at a certain wage for a certain number of months. His engagement expires at the end of that period. If he leaves before the engagement expires the farmer may deduct from his wages any additional wages that he, the farmer, must pay another man to take the place of the one quitting.

The man, on his part, is entitled to his wages as agreed, during or at expiration of the engagement. He is expected to work the number of hours usually worked on farms in the district where he is employed and may take holidays usually taken by hired men on farms. The customary holidays are Christmas, New Year, Empire Day and July First.

Labour Day and Thanksgiving are not generally observed on farms. Sunday work is as per contract or custom.

Nor’-West Farmer, March 20, 1920, Letters from Editor to Reader

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