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Master and Servant Act

Master and Servant Acts or Masters and Servants Acts were laws designed to regulate relations between employers and employees during the 18th and 19th centuries. An 1823 United Kingdom Act described its purpose as "the better regulations of servants, labourers and work people". This particular Act greatly influenced industrial relations and employment law in the United States, Australia (an 1845 Act), Canada (1847), New Zealand (1856) and South Africa (1856). These Acts are generally regarded as heavily biased towards employers, designed to discipline employees and repress the "combination" of workers in trade unions.

The law required the obedience and loyalty from servants to their contracted employer, with infringements of the contract punishable before a court of law, often with a jail sentence of hard labour. It was used against workers organising for better conditions from its inception until well after the first United Kingdom Trade Union Act 1871 was implemented, which secured the legal status of trade unions. Until then, a trade union could be regarded as illegal because of being "in restraint of trade".

Use in BritainEdit

During the 1860s, punitive provisions were extended by judicial interpretation, leading to the imprisonment of union officials who led strikes or issued verbal calls challenging an employer's hiring practices such as only using non-union workers. A revised Master and Servant Act was passed in 1867, which supposedly limited imprisonment to "aggravated" breaches of contract (where injury to persons or property was likely to result), but it was clear that only workers were subject to its provisions. Imprisonment, even for non-aggravated breaches of contract, continued when working people failed to comply with court orders for specific performance or for non-payment of monetary damages and fines.[1]

Between 1858 and 1875 on average 10,000 prosecutions a year took place under the Act in Britain. Ernest Jones, a barrister, estimated that, "[I]n one year alone, 1864, the last return given, under the Master and Servants Act, 10,246 working men were imprisoned at the suit of their masters — not one master at the suit of the men!"[2] There is some evidence, however, that this may not universally have been the case; at least one scholar has shown that local courts enforced causes of action in the early-to-mid-19th century against masters as well, in at least some instances, albeit in Canada.[3]

List of Acts

Use in AustraliaEdit

As little as one hour's absence by a free servant without permission could precipitate a punishment of prison or the treadmill. In 1840, employees in Australia who left their employment without permission were subject to being hunted down under the Bushrangers Act. In the Melbourne jurisdiction, between 1835 and 1845, when labour shortages were acute, over 20% of prison inmates had been convicted under the New South Wales Act of 1823 for offences including leaving place of work without permission and being found in hotels.[4] By 1902, the 1823 Act had been modified to include forfeit of wages if the written or unwritten contract for work was unfulfilled. Absence from place of work was punishable by imprisonment of up to three months with or without hard labour. There were also penalties of up to 10 pounds for anyone who harboured, concealed or re-employed a 'servant' (i.e. worker) who had deserted or absconded or absented himself from his duty implied in the 'contract'.[5]

The 1823 Act is not a widely remembered part of Australian political history (although there is a more general association of unacceptable exploitation of workers with the Victorian period). In 2006 a group of trade unionists referred to the 1823 Act in their criticism of the "WorkChoices" industrial relations policies of the Howard government, claiming that "Our rights as workers are back where they were in the early 1800s - the only thing now missing is a Master - Servants Act."[6] Similar comparisons have been made by social commentators, unionists and politicians.[7][8]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Philip Benesch (January 2005). "Review of "Governments, Labour, and the Law In Mid-Victorian Britain: the Trade Union Legislation Of the 1870s", by Mark Curthoys". Law and Politics Book Review. 15 (1): 12–17.
  2. ^ Ernest Jones (4 January 1867). "Democracy Vindicated". Archived from the original on 3 March 2006.
  3. ^ Ian C. Pilarczyk (2001). ""Too Well Used by His Master": Judicial Enforcement of Servants' Rights in Montreal, 1830-1845" (PDF). McGill Law Journal. 46 (2): 491–529.
  4. ^ Newcastle Miners and The Master and Servant Act, 1830–1862 by J.W. Turner in Labour History number 16, May 1969.
  5. ^ Masters and Servants Act (1902) N.S.W.
  6. ^ Geelong Trades Hall (11 July 2006). "The Peoples Demands". Archived from the original on 13 August 2006.
  7. ^ Kenneth Davidson (23 June 2005). "Howard aims to create his own dystopia". The Age.
  8. ^ "CASUAL WORKERS". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). New South Wales: Legislative Council of New South Wales. 12 October 2005. Archived from the original on 22 February 2006.

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