HomeLifestyleHealthA History of Labour Laws Part 1: Child Labour and Work Hours

A History of Labour Laws Part 1: Child Labour and Work Hours

What are Labour Laws?

The history of labour laws invokes a complicated history of the understanding of labour itself. In the way the term may be understood here, ‘labour’ refers to organized industrial work. The way in which ‘labour’ became defined following the industrial revolution was markedly different from the master-servant relationship that had pervaded communities before that.

The intermediation of machines changed how people related to each other in the workplace, and how the fruits of the labour were related to the hands which made them.

In the context of post industrial revolution work, labour laws is the legal apparatus that overlooks the legitimate working hours, work place safety, minimum wage, minimum age of employment, and other ancillary benefits of being engaged in organized work.

An Etching from the Report Commissioned by Queen Victoria, following the Husker’s Colliery Accident of 1838.

Why study the History of Labour Laws?

These elements of employment are currently taken for granted in the organized sector, where the definition of work has shifted farther and farther away from the idea of ‘labour’, which invokes an image of physical rather than intellectual work. In our service driven economy, the idea of physical work is often considered menial.

Be that as it may, even the most intellectual of work, if pursued within an organized contractual system, would be subject to ‘labour laws’. Our everyday ideas of employment and social security are hence governed by labour legislation, and it is imperative that, as members of the work force, we become aware of the long and rich history of their formation.

Industrialization in Britain

Britain was the first nation to be industrialized, and subsequently, the first country to deal with the changing conditions of work. The use of ‘steam power’ automated many industries, but the primary were the mining sector and the textile industry.

With feudalism on its way out, the agrarian way of life was gradually replaced over the late 18th century. A major part of the rural workforce was forced to move away from farming to industrial work. Unregulated working conditions meant that prepubescent children were employed in dangerous working conditions for inhumanly long hours. Young children were made to work in mines, helping switch mine cart rail tracks, and pass through narrow tunnel spaces too big for adult workers.

Although child labour was in no way a new concept, the condition of their employment was substantially different. The conditions of industrial work, especially in mines, was life threateningly dangerous. Many child workers died on the job, bisected by mine carts after falling asleep on the rail tracks, or suffocated by coal dust. And this excluding the deaths of numerous young children whose lives were cut short by overwork and malnutrition.

Most such deaths went unreported, and the rising population of the country meant new workers were always available as replacements.

The Establishment of Labour Laws

In the mechanized workplace, labour was subjunctive to the machine, and was regulated by the weight and skill involved in its functioning. This changed relationship with the field of work meant that the conditions of ‘labour’ had to be changed through legislation. After consistent injuries and deaths, legislation was finally introduced to regulate the minimum age of workers.

Workers in Textile Mills

The Apprentices Act of 1802 was one of the first laws passed through the British parliament which began regulating the age at which professionals could begin employing child ‘apprentices’ in textile mills.

The idea of taking on apprentices was a traditional one. Children often chose trades at a young age and worked as apprentices of masters of that same tread. They learnt the skills of the trade by assisting the master in everyday work, and gradually became skilled enough to go forth on their own. This idea was continued into the industrialized nation, when factories and mines were employing workers. Children as young as 4 years of age were employed as workers because they had to be paid less wages than a full grown individual.

It is to be noted that the Apprentices Act of 1802, and a follow up Act of 1819 were instigated by an industrialist by the name of Sir Robert Peel, who was concerned about the conditions of work in his textile mills. These two acts tried to introduce safer working conditions and terms of engagement, like reduced working hours, and prohibiting children below 9 years from working in textile mills.

However substantial change in the organization and work environment did not come about before popular agitation about the conditions, and media reports were made about the dismal working conditions. This allowed public opinion to be swayed enough for Parliament to pass farther regulatory laws.

Workers in Coal Mines

Following an accident in Husker Colliery in 1838, which led to the death of 26 children working there, a report was commissioned by Queen Victoria to look into the ages of workers and the conditions in which they worked. This report led to the discovery of the dismal and dangerous conditions under which children worked in mines, and how rampant accidents were, leading to serious injuries and even death.

As a result the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 was passed which prohibited employment of any children below 10 years to work in the mines. Further down the years, the Ten Hours Factories Act of 1847 limited the work day to 10 hours for women and children between 13-18 years of age.

The Pioneering Importance of Labour Laws

It seems odd to indulge in a study of these historical developments, knowing that we have moved past this stage. Currently, there are laws against child labour, and ways to regulate the working conditions in factories. So what does it matter whether we know the historical situation in which these ideas emerged, or not?

However, research into working conditions in many factories and mines today would reveal that the regulations are still not followed properly. Child labour is still rampant across the world, and safety concerns are not heeded by owners and managers.

Governments and corporate lobbyists often take advantage of our ignorance of the historical context of the making of these labour laws, and change them beyond recognition in order to suit the employer’s profit motives. It is imperative that we, as people joining the workforce as either employers or employees be aware of our heritage, and respect them in the terms of decent humanity from which they emerged.

A History of Labour Laws Part 2
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