The idea of a ‘labour’ law is of fairly recent origin, and one that is only about a hundred-odd years old. In colonial India, the common law of master and servant initially governed relations in the nascent industries of railways, public works, mines and plantations. The British system of common law was “received” into the region (a notional date for such reception is usually identified with the Charter Act of 1726) and which was modified by the notions of “equity, justice and good conscience” 1 to suit the exigencies of the Indian situation. The British law of master and servant formed the basis for a large part of the present day labour law. 2 Underpinned by the general law of contract law, these labour relations were presumed to be freely entered into by consenting persons and therefore even iniquitous terms of the contract were deemed to be enforceable. Thus, the Workman’s Breach of Contract Act, 1859, treated such relations as a form of general law dealing with contractual obligations. In the colonial setting, breaches of such contracts were dealt with not only by civil remedies but also with penal consequences. 3 As studies have shown, labour relations which were founded often on status and contract were, however, enforced in the colonies mainly by the criminal justice system, and supporting criminal laws.
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