The origins of labour law can be traced back to the remote past and the most varied parts of the world. While European writers often attach importance to the guilds and apprenticeship systems of the medieval world, some Asian scholars have identified labour standards as far back as the Laws of Hammurabi and rules for labour–management relations in the Laws of Manu; Latin-American authors point to the Laws of the Indies promulgated by Spain in the 17th century for its New World territories. None of these can be regarded as more than anticipations, with only limited influence on subsequent developments. Labour law as it is known today is essentially the child of successive industrial revolutions from the 18th century onward. It became necessary when customary restraints and the intimacy of employment relationships in small communities ceased to provide adequate protection against the abuses incidental to new forms of mining and manufacture on a rapidly increasing scale at precisely the time when the 18th-century Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the political forces that they set in motion were creating the elements of the modern social conscience. It developed rather slowly, chiefly in the more industrialized countries of western Europe, during the 19th century and has attained its present importance, relative maturity, and worldwide acceptance only during the 20th century.
The first landmark of modern labour law was the British Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, sponsored by the elder Sir Robert Peel. Similar legislation for the protection of the young was adopted in Zürich in 1815 and in France in 1841. By 1848 the first legal limitation of the working hours of adults was adopted by the Landsgemeinde (citizens’ assembly) of the Swiss canton of Glarus. Sickness insurance and workmen’s compensation were pioneered by Germany in 1883 and 1884, and compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes was introduced in New Zealand in the 1890s. The...
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