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History of Employment Laws

written by: Vikas Vij•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 2/4/2011

The history of employment laws in the United States provides an interesting insight into how the labor legislations have evolved over centuries to create a more just economic system in the country.

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    History of Labor Law in the United States

    Strike Employment rules and regulations have been a part of the world’s economic history for many centuries. However, the formal history of employment laws dates back to the 19th century in Europe and North America. This was primarily a result of the industrial revolution that began in Europe in the 18th century, and followed to the United States in the 19th century. In the United States, formal labor legislation began to emerge in the second half of the 19th century.

    The earliest employment laws were aimed at limiting the number of work hours and regulating wages with a view to protecting the economic rights of the workers, and preventing exploitation. In the early years, the laws in the U.S. were not so stringent like their European counterparts because the work conditions in the U.S. were relatively better. However, the introduction of machineries and automation in the wake of the Industrial Revolution made it necessary to shorten the work hours of labor so that they could handle machines more effectively.

    Photo Credit: www.sxc.hu svilen001

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    Massachusetts Law of 1866 to Prevent Child Labor

    Massachusetts was among one of the first states to pass clear child labor legislations with an aim to prevent the exploitation of children. The history of employment laws in the United States owes a lot to the pioneering efforts against child labor made in Massachusetts, which were later emulated by many other states. The historic Massachusetts Law of 1866 laid down a number of strict conditions for the employers regarding employment of children.

    It enacted a law that banned the employment of children below the age of 10 in manufacturing units. The law imposed stiff penalties on employers as well as parents if they were found violating this provision. The law further stated that a child between the age of 10 and 14 could be employed only if he had attended school for a minimum of six months in the preceding year.

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    Labor Legislations of the Early 20th Century

    Employment in the United States was subjected to landmark labor legislations in 1910 with several states of the Union defining the status of factory workers as employees, and granting several new rights to them individually and as a group. The goal of these laws was to ensure a fair and just socio-economic system in the country and reducing the scope for exploitation of the economically weaker sections of the society.

    Various legislations of that era may be broadly categorized into: (a) laws to provide legal aid to workers who were not in position to hire professional legal assistance to safeguard their interests, and (b) defining the legal status of factory workers as employees, permitting the formation of labor organizations and groups, granting them the right to peaceful assembly, and providing for legal settlement of labor-management disputes.

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    Factory Acts in the Later Part of 20th Century

    A large number of employment legislations were passed by various states of the Union in the latter half of the 20th century. These may be grouped into two classes. The first group of legislations related to work conditions for labor in all age groups, and not just for children and women. There was an increased emphasis on providing for improved sanitary conditions at the workplace and superior safety standards at work. The legislations included provisions for appointment of factory inspectors by the government who would monitor the implementation of these laws by the employers by making surprise checks and inspections at factories and other work sites.

    The second group of statutes related to restrictions on work hours of the labor. These statutes largely related to: (a) fixing of the number of hours a laborer may have to work to be regarded as a full day’s labor, if there is no employment contract in place (b) limiting the maximum number of hours per day of labor in public works and certain specific occupations, and (c) limiting the maximum number of hours per day or per week in case of employment of children or women.

    In recent years, there has been more emphasis on laws defining the employment contract and strict adherence to the provisions of the contract by both the employers and employees.