Labour law General Overview

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Labour law General Overview
Labour law General Overview

Labour law (also labor law or employment law, see spelling differences) mediates the relationship between workers (employees), employers, trade unions and the government. Collective labour law relates to the tripartite relationship between employee, employer and union. Individual labour law concerns employees’ rights at work and through the contract for work. Employment standards are social norms (in some cases also technical standards) for the minimum socially acceptable conditions under which employees or contractors are allowed to work. Government agencies (such as the former US Employment Standards Administration) enforce labour law (legislative, regulatory, or judicial).


Labour law arose in parallel with the Industrial Revolution as the relationship between worker and employer changed from small-scale production studios to large-scale factories. Workers sought better conditions and the right to join (or avoid joining) a labour union, while employers sought a more predictable, flexible and less costly workforce. The state of labour law at any one time is therefore both the product of, and a component of struggles between various social forces.

As England was the first country to industrialise, it was also the first to face the often appalling consequences of industrial revolution in a less regulated economic framework. Over the course of the late 18th and early to mid-19th century the foundation for modern labour law was slowly laid, as some of the more egregious aspects of working conditions were steadily ameliorated through legislation. This was largely achieved through the concerted pressure from social reformers, notably Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and others.

Child labour

A serious outbreak of fever in 1784 in cotton mills near Manchester drew widespread public opinion against the use of children in dangerous conditions. A local inquiry presided over by Dr Thomas Percival, was instituted by the justices of the peace for Lancashire, and the resulting report recommended the limitation of children’s working hours. In 1802, the first major piece of labour legislation was passed − the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. This was the first, albeit modest, step towards the protection of labour. The act limited working hours to twelve a day and abolished night work. It required the provision of a basic level of education for all apprentices, as well as adequate sleeping accommodation and clothing.

The rapid industrialisation of manufacturing at the turn of the 19th century led to a rapid increase in child employment, and public opinion was steadily made aware of the terrible conditions these children were forced to endure. The Factory Act of 1819 was the outcome of the efforts of the industrialist Robert Owen and prohibited child labour under nine years of age and limited the working day to twelve. A great milestone in labour law was reached with the Factory Act of 1833, which limited the employment of children under eighteen years of age, prohibited all night work and, crucially, provided for inspectors to enforce the law. Pivotal in the campaigning for and the securing of this legislation were Michael Sadler and the Earl of Shaftesbury. This act was an important step forward, in that it mandated skilled inspection of workplaces and a rigorous enforcement of the law by an independent governmental body.

A lengthy campaign to limit the working day to ten hours was led by Shaftesbury, and included support from the Anglican Church. Many committees were formed in support of the cause and some previously established groups lent their support as well. The campaign finally led to the passage of the Factory Act of 1847, which restricted the working hours of women and children in British factories to effectively 10 hours per day.

Working conditions

These early efforts were principally aimed at limiting child labour. From the mid-19th century, attention was first paid to the plight of working conditions for the workforce in general. In 1850, systematic reporting of fatal accidents was made compulsory, and basic safeguards for health, life and limb in the mines were put in place from 1855. Further regulations, relating to ventilation, fencing of disused shafts, signalling standards, and proper gauges and valves for steam-boilers and related machinery were also set down.

A series of further Acts, in 1860 and 1872 extended the legal provisions and strengthened safety provisions. Steady development of the coal industry, increasing association among miners, and increased scientific knowledge paved the way for the Coal Mines Act of 1872, which extended the legislation to similar industries. The same Act included the first comprehensive code of regulation to govern legal safeguards for health, life and limb. The presence of a more certified and competent management and increased levels of inspection were also provided for.

By the end of the century, a comprehensive set of regulations was in place in England that affected all industries. A similar system (with certain national differences) was implemented in other industrializing countries in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century.

Individual labour law

Employment terms

The basic feature of labour law in almost every country is that the rights and obligations of the worker and the employer are mediated through a contract of employment between the two. This has been the case since the collapse of feudalism. Many contract terms and conditions are covered by legislation or common law. In the US for example, the majority of state laws allow for employment to be “at will”, meaning the employer can terminate an employee from a position for any reason, so long as the reason is not explicitly prohibited,[a] and, conversely, an employee may quit at any time, for any reason (or for no reason), and is not required to give notice.

One example of employment terms in many countries is the duty to provide written particulars of employment with the essentialia negotii (Latin for “essential terms”) to an employee. This aims to allow the employee to know concretely what to expect and what is expected. It covers items including compensation, holiday and illness rights, notice in the event of dismissal and job description.

The contract is subject to various legal provisions. An employer may not legally offer a contract that pays the worker less than a minimum wage. An employee may not agree to a contract that allows an employer to dismiss them for illegal reasons.[b]

Minimum wage

Many jurisdictions define the minimum amount that a worker can be paid per hour. Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Japan,South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Paraguay, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Spain,Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Vietnam and others have laws of this kind.[citation needed] The minimum wage is set usually higher than the lowest wage as determined by the forces of supply and demand in a free market and therefore acts as a price floor. Each country sets its own minimum wage laws and regulations, and while a majority of industrialised countries has a minimum wage, many developing countries do not.

Minimum wages are regulated and stipulated in some countries that lack explicit laws. In Sweden minimum wages are negotiated between the labour market parties (unions and employer organisations) through collective agreements that also cover non-union workers and non-organised employers.

National minimum wage laws were first introduced in the United States in 1938, Brazil in 1940 India in 1948, France in 1950 and in the and the United Kingdom in 1998. In the European Union, 18 out of 28 member states have national minimum wages as of 2011.

Living wage

The living wage is higher than the minimum wage and is designed that a full-time worker would be able to support themselves and a small family at that wage.


The maximum number of hours worked per day or other time interval are set by law in many countries. Such laws also control whether workers who work longer hours must be paid additional compensation.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the workday varied between 11 and 14 hours. With the growth of industrialism and the introduction of machinery, longer hours became far more common, reaching as high as 16 hours per day.

The eight-hour movement led to the first law on the length of a working day, passed in 1833 in England. It limited miners to 12 hours and children to 8 hours. The 10-hour day was established in 1848, and shorter hours with the same pay were gradually accepted thereafter. The 1802 Factory Act was the first labour law in the UK.

Germany was the next European country to pass labour laws; Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s main goal was to undermine the Social Democratic Party of Germany. In 1878, Bismarck instituted a variety of anti-socialist measures, but despite this, socialists continued gaining seats in the Reichstag. To appease the working class, he enacted a variety of paternalistic social reforms, which became the first type of social security. In 1883 the Health Insurance Act was passed, which entitled workers to health insurance; the worker paid two-thirds and the employer one-third of the premiums. Accident insurance was provided in 1884, while old age pensions and disability insurance followed in 1889. Other laws restricted the employment of women and children. These efforts, however, were not entirely successful; the working class largely remained unreconciled with Bismarck’s conservative government.[citation needed]

In France, the first labour law was voted in 1841. It limited under-age miners’ hours. In the Third Republic labour law was first effectively enforced, in particular after Waldeck-Rousseau 1884 law legalising trade unions. With the Matignon Accords, the Popular Front (1936–38) enacted the laws mandating 12 days each year of paid vacations for workers and the law limiting the standard workweek to 40 hours.

Health and safety

Other labour laws involve safety concerning workers. The earliest English factory law was passed in 1802 and dealt with the safety and health of child textile workers.


Such laws prohibited discrimination against employees as morally unacceptable and illegal, in particular racial discrimination or gender discrimination.


Convention no. 158 of the International Labour Organization states that an employee “can’t be fired without any legitimate motive” and “before offering him the possibility to defend himself”. Thus, on April 28, 2006, after the unofficial repeal of the French First Employment Contract, the Longjumeau (Essonne) conseil des prud’hommes (labour law court) judged the New Employment Contract contrary to international law and therefore “illegitimate” and “without any juridical value”. The court considered that the two-years period of “fire at will” (without any legal motive) was “unreasonable”, and contrary to convention.

Child labour

Child labour was not seen as a problem throughout most of history, only disputed with the beginning of universal schooling and the concepts of labourers’ and children’s rights. Use of child labour was commonplace, often in factories. In England and Scotland in 1788, about two-thirds of persons working in water-powered textile factories were children. Child labour can be factory work, mining or quarrying, agriculture, helping in the parents’ business, operating a small business (such as selling food), or doing odd jobs. Children work as guides for tourists, sometimes combined with bringing in business for shops and restaurants (where they may also work). Other children do jobs such as assembling boxes or polishing shoes. However, rather than in factories and sweatshops, most child labour in the twenty-first century occurs in the informal sector, “selling on the street, at work in agriculture or hidden away in houses — far from the reach of official inspectors and from media scrutiny.”

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