"It is a serious national evil that any class of his Majesty's subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions. It was formerly supposed that the working of the laws of supply and demand would naturally regulate or eliminate that evil [...and...] ultimately produce a fair price. Where... you have a powerful organisation on both sides... there you have a healthy bargaining.... But where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst... where those conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration."
Winston Churchill MP, Trade Boards Bill, Hansard col 388
Modern minimum wage laws trace their origin to the Ordinance of Labourers (1349), which was a decree by King Edward III that set a maximum wage for laborers in medieval England. King Edward III, who was a wealthy landowner, was dependent, like his lords, on serfs to work the land. In the autumn of 1348, the Black Plague reached England and decimated the population. The severe shortage of labor caused wages to soar and encouraged King Edward III to set a wage ceiling. Subsequent amendments to the ordinance, such as the Statute of Labourers (1351), increased the penalties for paying a wage above the set rates.
While the laws governing wages initially set a ceiling on compensation, they were eventually used to set a living wage. An amendment to the Statute of Labourers in 1389 effectively fixed wages to the price of food. As time passed, the Justice of the Peace, who was charged with setting the maximum wage, also began to set formal minimum wages. The practice was eventually formalized with the passage of the Act Fixing a Minimum Wage in 1604 by King James I for workers in the textile industry.
By the early 19th century, the Statutes of Labourers was repealed as increasingly capitalistic England embraced laissez-faire policies which disfavored regulations of wages (whether upper or lower limits). The subsequent 19th century saw significant labor unrest affect many industrial nations. As trade unions were decriminalized during the century, attempts to control wages through collective agreement were made. However, this meant that a uniform minimum wage was not possible. In Principles of Political Economy in 1848, John Stuart Mill argued that because of the collective action problems that workers faced in organisation, it was a justified departure from laissez-faire policies (or freedom of contract) to regulate people's wages and hours by the law.
It was not until the 1890s that the first modern legislative attempts to regulate minimum wages were seen in New Zealand and Australia. The movement for a minimum wage was initially focused on stopping sweatshop labor and controlling the proliferation of sweatshops in manufacturing industries. The sweatshops employed large numbers of women and young workers, paying them what were considered to be substandard wages. The sweatshop owners were thought to have unfair bargaining power over their employees, and a minimum wage was proposed as a means to make them pay fairly. Over time, the focus changed to helping people, especially families, become more self-sufficient.