Ask The Lawyer, Giving Thanks For Better Lives For Workers


The people we celebrate as the Pilgrims (who called themselves separatists) came to America in 1620 for two reasons: Freedom to establish their own religion and – in what has become a great American tradition – to make money. Earlier settlers who established the Jamestown Colony in1607 showed their commercial nature in their name: The Virginia Company.

But as more colonists arrived, these early settlers found an impediment in the way of establishing profitable farms and businesses. There was a shortage of labor – cheap labor. Those early farmers and tradespeople found workers – but the new arrivals had hardly any rights.

After trying unsuccessfully to use Native Americans, the settlers used a system of “indentured servitude” to attract English and European workers. In exchange for passage to the new world, room, board and lodging, the servant agreed to work for four to seven years without pay. At the end of that period, depending on the agreement, the indentured servant might receive land, livestock and clothing. But, to gain that freedom, the worker had to survive the period of servitude, and that was often no easy task.

In the earliest days in the Jamestown Colony, the mortality rate among indentured workers was high and conditions were poor. Some workers ran away to live with Native Americans rather than accept being “treated like slaves, with great cruelty,” according to one historian. In order to discourage such flight, the colony’s governor ordered that recaptured laborers should be hanged, burned, broken at the wheels, staked or shot. Over time, a more tailored form of indentured servitude resulted in fewer deaths and fewer run-aways, but although servants were guaranteed access to adequate food, clothing, and shelter, they had few rights. The laws protected them against excessive corporal punishment, but what was excessive was interpreted very broadly.

The first Africans to arrive in America were initially treated as indentured servants, but that did not last. By 1641 the Massachusetts colony passed the slave laws – and any rights African “servants” had to freedom were extinguished. As the relative cost of an indentured servant increased in comparison to the cost of a slave, landowners increasingly turned to slavery, and by the 1700s the slave trade in the United States was thriving.

While the life of a paid worker in America in the 18th and 19th centuries was immeasurably better than that of a slave, workers had very few protections. Days off? No. Injured on the job? Tough luck. Sick? Too bad. Pregnant? Keep working. Fair Pay? Are you dreaming? And, people were rarely too young or too old to be exempt from work.

The idea of collective bargaining took hold in the late 18th century, but until 1842 it was a crime to go on strike. Workers did not get legal protection for risking life and limb on the job until 1908 – and the Federal Employers Liability Act passed that year applied only to railway workers. The landmark Occupational Safety and Health Act was not passed until 1970. In the two years before passage of the act, an estimated 14,000 workers died each year, and another 2 million were disabled or harmed at work. Those statistics have improved, but not as much as might be expected: In 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5,280 fatal work injuries. Some 2.8 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported that year; 333,930 resulted in an employee having to stay home from work and go to a medical treatment facility.

Until 1964, it was legal to discriminate against a worker because of race, sex, color, religion or national origin. Until this past year it was legal under federal law to discriminate against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the almost 400 years since the pilgrims arrived in what is now Massachusetts, the lives of workers have improved enormously. This Thanksgiving Day, here at Gwinn Legal we are thankful that the abuse of workers that our earliest settlers often practiced has given way to a slow recognition of rights.

The following sites were consulted in preparing this article:

Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis,” by David W. Galenson, The Journal of Economic History (Vol XLIV, No. 1, March 1984), accessed at

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By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq
.Attorney and Counselor at Law
901 Wilshire Drive, Suite 550
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 247-3300
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