What are Labor Laws?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Labor unions had a major influence on the development of American labor laws.
Labor unions had a major influence on the development of American 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.

The historic use of child labor is now considered illegal.
The historic use of child labor is now considered illegal.

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.

Sweatshops were on the rise during the 19th century.
Sweatshops were on the rise during the 19th century.

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.

Protections from overwork have been a part of labor laws since the early 20th Century.
Protections from overwork have been a part of labor laws since the early 20th Century.

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.

Labor laws usually cover safety and working conditions.
Labor laws usually cover safety and working conditions.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal.
Labor laws help determine what conditions are safe for people to work in.
Labor laws help determine what conditions are safe for people to work in.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Melonlity

@Soulfox -- true, and one of the claims often made about unions is that they were too successful. The abuses which compelled workers to form unions to look out for them have mostly been legislated out of existence. That observation has been given as one of the reasons that unions have declined in prominence over the years.

There is some logic to that argument. There still remains a lot of debate over whether unions still have some work to do when it comes to defending labor or whether they exists solely for the purpose of pushing for higher wages. Expect those debates to intensify as the United States wrestles with the issue of manufacturing jobs being sent overseas where labor costs less.

Soulfox

Workers in the United States can thank unions for a lot of those laws passed by both state and federal governments designed to improve working conditions. Minimum wage, 40-hour work weeks, laws regarding safety, prohibitions against using child labor and other initiatives were pushed for and won by unions.

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