Labour Law History globally

Research Project

The history of labour law is a rather niche discipline in many countries, with only a few experts dealing with it. Depending on the historical genesis of the field, these are either jurists who have specialised in labour law or historians who come from a labour history background. What scholars have in common is that they often concentrate on national contexts and only rarely consider the relation to labour law of other nations (with the exception of European labour law or international regulation arising in connection with the International Labour Organization). That is, we do not find studies about the entangled history of these developments, literature with comparison as a methodological basis, or research questions that focus on similarities and differences of cases studies (unless the similarities and historical linkages are obvious, e.g. development in the context of colonial history).

This observation was already made by colleagues at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam in the early 2000s, bringing together experts on the topic in an exciting publication.1 This occurred at a time when Labour History in general was breaking new ground, reinventing itself, and trying to become more global, less Eurocentric. In the meantime, many initiatives, academic projects, and publications have developed out of this. Global Labour History is a recognised field today in which research on diverse topics is conducted. But what about Global Labour Law History? Have similar developments taken place here?

In the last years, the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory has developed some methodological proposals for doing Global Legal History, suggesting an analytical framework that helps to understand normative orders as the result of normative practices, observing them as Historical Regimes of Normativity. For example, in the research project ‘Non-state Law of the Economy,’ we are investigating norms and regulations in industrial relations in the German 19th and 20th centuries. Norms are not produced by the state but rather by a multifaceted field of actors and institutions in which the normative order is negotiated, codified, and called into question. This new approach seems suitable to take another look at the history of labour law and bring labour law historians into conversation with each other.

To commence this initiative, the conference "Labor Law History from a Global Perspective: Collective Workplace Disputes and their Normative Contexts" (12-13 September 2023) was held at which interdisciplinary, cross-epochal and cross-national discussions were held on networking opportunities and thematic priorities (see programme).

The next conference will be held on 3–4 September 2024 on the topic of "Founders and Shapers of Labour Law. National and transnational perspectives" at the mpilhlt. Co-organiser is Professor Rebecca Zahn, University of Strathclyde.

If you are interested in the conference or the network, please send an email to

1 Van der Linden, Marcel and Richard G. Price (eds). The Rise and Development of Collective Labour Law. International and Comparative Social History, Bern etc.: Lang 2000.

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