[W]hen it comes to labour, state intervention in the market is nothing new.
Almost as soon as the feudal laws tying people to the land started breaking down governments began to legislate. The Statute of Labourers in 1351 is usually regarded as the first labour legislation in English Law. It was enacted during the labour shortage after the Black Death and its purpose was to stop workers moving from their home villages to look for work to hold down the price of labour. Economic conditions made it almost impossible to enforce but it set the tone for subsequent labour legislation and common law which, by and large, worked in favour of employers for the next 500 years. (...)
From the 16th century until 1875, employment was government my Master and Servant laws dating from the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers but reinforced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by further legislation. As Deakin notes, the original laws contained some degree of protection for workers but this was eroded by the subsequent legislation which, at the same time, increased the penalties for servants.
The important thing to understand about master and servant law, though, is that workers were subject to criminal sanctions for breaches of their contracts while masters were only subject to the civil law. You don’t need to think about that for too long to see the lop sidedness of it. Workers of limited means had to pursue employers through the courts, while employers had the entire law enforcement apparatus of the state at their disposal. (...)
The penalties for breach of contract were harsh. Imprisonment with hard labour, fines and even, on occasion, beatings. Criminal prosecutions under master and servant laws were common, says Johnson, averaging about 10,000 a year in the mid-nineteenth century. (...)
When criminal prosecution for breach of contract was abolished in 1875, wages rose. They rose fastest in the areas where there had previously been the most prosecutions. There can be little doubt that the law had done exactly what the masters intended it to do; intimidate workers to the point where they were too scared to leave their employers and find better paid jobs. (...)
The myth that there was a time before The Fall, when the state didn’t meddle in the affairs of free men, is persistent, especially on the libertarian right. When it comes to labour law, though, it is just that, a myth. State intervention in the labour market is nothing new. The only aspect that is relatively new is its intervention on behalf of employees.
The pre-20th century labour market was not without its red tape, it’s just that the red tape was used to bind the servants, not the masters.
Em Portugal terá havido legislação como esta? A Lei das Sesmarias de D. Fernando obrigava as pessoas com pouca riqueza a aceitarem trabalho como assalariados rurais (e sujeitos a salários méximos), mas imagino que depois disso não tenha havido mais leis desse género.