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What are Labor Laws?

The historic use of child labor is now considered illegal.
Sweatshops were on the rise during the 19th century.
Protections from overwork have been a part of labor laws since the early 20th Century.
Labor unions had a major influence on the development of American labor laws.
Article Details
  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Children's Bureau Centennial, Xy, Picture-Factory, Kheel Center
  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2014
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Labor laws are laws which are designed to protect workers. Many nations around the world have laws of this type, which vary widely in scope and complexity, and enforcement of such laws is also quite variable. Consumers who are concerned about working conditions and worker safety may actively seek out products made in countries with more stringent labor laws.

The history of laws regarding workers is quite ancient, with many nations having very old statutes on their books regarding overwork, compensation, apprenticeship agreements, and so forth. However, modern labor law began to evolve in the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution radically changed both society and the workplace. As the nature of work and employment shifted, the need for tougher laws became more apparent. The 19th century marked the rise of the sweatshop, and a variety of cramped and potentially dangerous working environments in factories and on farms.

Basic labor laws usually spell out things like the number of hours people are allowed to work, the age at which people can work, the minimum amount of compensation, and so forth. Many laws also address working conditions, with clauses which are designed to promote safe workplaces. Employers are typically required to provide protection from potential workplace hazards, unemployment and disability insurance, and routine inspections to ensure that workplaces are physically safe to work in.

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Many labor laws also address social conditions, specifying that men and women must receive equal pay for equal work, outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace, and specifying that employers may not practice discrimination. In some countries, labor legislation also stipulate mandatory benefits like insurance, payments into retirement accounts, paid leave, vacation time, and so forth. Some nations also protect their employees from limits on free speech, with the goal of promoting whistleblowing, and allowing employees to exercise their right to live, vote, and worship in their own way.

Because the scope of labor law has grown so wide, many countries have formed cabinet-level agencies to deal with labor issues. These agencies formulate new laws, perform inspections, and enforce existing labor legislation. They may also educate workers about their rights and responsibilities, and assist employers with navigating the labor code. Good labor laws are only as good as their enforcers, which is something that consumers should consider: a country can put anything it likes into its legal code, but legislation is useless without inspection agents and law enforcement to back it up. For example, most countries have laws against child labor, but the use of child labor is a perennial problem in the developing world.

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