Section 7. Worker Rights
The law provides for the right to form and join unions and to bargain collectively, although there is no legal obligation for employers to recognize a union or engage in collective bargaining. In the state of Sikkim, trade union registration was subject to prior permission from the state government. The law limits the organizing rights of federal and state government employees.
The law provides for the right to strike but places restrictions on this right for some workers. For instance, in export processing zones (EPZs), a 45-day notice is required because of the EPZs’ designation as a “public utility.” The law also allows the government to ban strikes in government-owned enterprises and requires arbitration in specified “essential industries.” Definitions of essential industries vary from state to state. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and retribution for involvement in legal strikes and provides for reinstatement of employees fired for union activity. In October, 48,000 workers of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) went on strike. The unions were demanding that the TSRTC be merged with the state government, so workers were able to obtain full benefits. After almost 45 days, the transport workers returned to work with no resolutions reached between labor unions and the state government of Telangana State.
Enforcement of the law varied from state to state and from sector to sector. Enforcement was generally better in the larger, organized-sector industries. Authorities generally prosecuted and punished individuals responsible for intimidation or suppression of legitimate trade union activities in the industrial sector. Civil judicial procedures addressed abuses because the Trade Union Act does not specify penalties for such abuses. Specialized labor courts adjudicate labor disputes, but there were long delays and a backlog of unresolved cases.
Employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively in the formal industrial sector but not in the larger, informal economy. Most union members worked in the formal sector, and trade unions represented a small number of agricultural and informal-sector workers. Membership-based organizations, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association, successfully organized informal-sector workers and helped them to gain higher payment for their work or products.
An estimated 80 percent of unionized workers were affiliated with one of the five major trade union federations. Unions were independent of the government, but four of the five major federations were associated with major political parties.
State and local authorities occasionally used their power to declare strikes illegal and force adjudication. Labor groups reported that some employers continued to refuse to recognize established unions, and some, instead, established “workers’ committees” and employer-controlled unions to prevent independent unions from organizing. EPZs often employed workers on temporary contracts. Additionally, employee-only restrictions on entry to the EPZs limited union organizers’ access.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but forced labor, including bonded labor for both adults and children (see section 7.c.), remained widespread.
Enforcement and compensation for victims is the responsibility of state and local governments and varied in effectiveness. The government generally did not effectively enforce laws related to bonded labor or labor-trafficking laws, such as the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. On August 27, the Madras High Court found a rice mill owner guilty of holding six workers, including three women, under bondage in his mill, and the court sentenced the owner to a three-year prison term. The workers were each awarded compensation of 50,000 rupees ($700). When inspectors referred violations for prosecution, court backlogs, inadequate preparation, and a lack of prioritization of the cases by prosecuting authorities sometimes resulted in acquittals. In addition, when authorities did report violations, they sometimes reported them to civil courts to assess fines and did not refer them to police for criminal investigation of labor trafficking.
Penalties under law varied based on the type of forced labor and included fines and prison terms; not all were sufficiently stringent. For example, bonded labor was specifically criminalized under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which prescribes sufficiently stringent penalties, and the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, which prescribes penalties that were not sufficiently stringent.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the federally funded, state-run Centrally Sponsored Scheme assisted in the release of 2,289 bonded laborers during the period from April through December 2018. Many NGOs reported delays of more than one year in obtaining release certificates for rescued bonded laborers. Such certificates were required to certify that employers had held them in bondage and entitled them to compensation under the law. The NGOs also reported that in some instances, they failed to obtain release certificates for bonded laborers at all. The distribution of initial rehabilitation funds was uneven across states. The majority of bonded labor victim compensation cases remained tied to a criminal conviction of bonded labor. As authorities often registered bonded labor cases as civil salary violations in lieu of bonded labor, convictions of the traffickers and full compensation for victims remained rare.
Estimates of the number of bonded laborers varied widely. Media reports estimated the number at 18 million workers in debt bondage. Most bonded labor occurred in agriculture. Nonagricultural sectors with a high incidence of bonded labor were stone quarries, brick kilns, rice mills, construction, embroidery factories, and beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) production.
Bonded labor continued to be a concern in many states.
On August 19, police and civil officials in Kolar District of Karnataka rescued 10 tribal workers, including two girls and a boy, from a construction site. Nine of the 10 rescued persons belonged to two families and had worked as bonded laborers for three years. State officials stated that the workers were denied wages to account for a loan of 60,000 rupees ($845) each that they took from labor agents. In Tamil Nadu release certificates were not handed to bonded labor from Odisha, who were rescued from Tiruvallur District in 2018. This deprived them of interim compensation and rehabilitation.
Bonded laborers from Odisha were rescued from brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka during the year. In March, 96 workers were rescued in Koppal and Yadgir Districts of Karnataka, while 40 workers, including nine children, were rescued in Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh in April.
Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe members lived and worked under traditional arrangements of servitude in many areas of the country. Although the central government had long abolished forced labor servitude, these social groups remained impoverished and vulnerable to forced exploitation, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
All of the worst forms of child labor were prohibited. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 14. The law also prohibits the employment of children between the ages of 14 and 18 in hazardous work. Children are prohibited from using flammable substances, explosives, or other hazardous material, as defined by the law. In 2017 the Ministry of Labor and Employment added 16 industries and 59 processes to the list of hazardous industries where employment of children younger than 18 is prohibited, and where children younger than 14 are prohibited from helping, including family enterprises. Despite evidence that children work in unsafe and unhealthy environments for long periods of time in spinning mills, garment production, carpet making, and domestic work, not all children younger than 18 are prohibited from working in occupations related to these sectors. The law, however, permits employment of children in family-owned enterprises involving nonhazardous activities after school hours. Nevertheless, child labor remained widespread.
Law enforcement agencies took actions to combat child labor. State governments enforced labor laws and employed labor inspectors, while the Ministry of Labor and Employment provided oversight and coordination. Nonetheless, gaps existed within the operations of the state government labor inspectorate that might have hindered adequate labor law enforcement. Violations remained common. The law establishes penalties that are insufficient to deter violations, and authorities sporadically enforced them. The fines collected are deposited in a welfare fund for formerly employed children.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment coordinated its efforts with states to raise awareness about child labor by funding various outreach events, such as plays and community activities.
The majority of child labor occurred in agriculture and the informal economy, in particular in stone quarries, in the rolling of cigarettes, and in informal food service establishments. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children).
In July, Telangana police rescued 67 children younger than 14, all hailing from Bihar, from bangle-making factories in Hyderabad. Six persons were arrested. The children were locked in a tiny room and lived in inhuman conditions, besides being made to work for nearly 17 hours a day. The children were given “release certificates” recognizing them as bonded laborers, which qualified them to receive 25,000 rupees ($350) as interim relief and 300,000 rupees ($4,200) as compensation. The children were sent back to Bihar in August.
During Operation Smile in July, Telangana police and other government officials rescued 3,470 children from bonded labor and begging schemes. Police fined 431 employers 1.87 million rupees ($26,300) and registered cases against seven employers. It was unclear if police filed any trafficking or bonded labor charges.
In August the International Labor Organization commenced a three-year project in partnership with the Telangana government covering the entire cotton supply chain from farm to factory, to identify the presence of child labor, bonded labor, and gender discrimination.
In Telangana, local groups cited flaws in the implementation of a bridge-school program meant for rescued child laborers under the government’s National Child Labor Project, noting that the state has no way of knowing if rescued child laborers have dropped out of school and returned to work. State government officials agreed that, following the 2016 amendments to the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, state surveys no longer identified the number of children working in family enterprises, bonded labor, and nonhazardous work environments.
Forced child labor, including bonded labor, also remained a serious problem. Employers engaged children in forced or indentured labor as domestic servants and beggars, as well as in quarrying, brick kilns, rice mills, silk-thread production, and textile embroidery.
Provisions in the constitution and various laws and regulations prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status with respect to employment and occupation. A separate law prohibits discrimination against individuals suffering from HIV/AIDs. The law does not prohibit discrimination against individuals with communicable diseases or based on color, religion, political opinion, national origin, or citizenship.
The government effectively enforced the law and regulations within the formal sector. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The law and regulations, however, do not protect those working within the informal sector (industries and establishments that do not fall under the purview of the Factories Act), who made up an estimated 90 percent of the workforce.
Discrimination occurred in the informal sector with respect to Dalits, indigenous persons, and persons with disabilities. Gender discrimination with respect to wages was prevalent. Foreign migrant workers were largely undocumented and typically did not enjoy the legal protections available to workers who are nationals of the country.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Federal law sets safety and health standards, but state government laws set minimum wages, hours of work, and additional state-specific safety and health standards. The daily minimum wage varied but was more than the official estimate of poverty-level income. State governments set a separate minimum wage for agricultural workers. Laws on wages, hours, and occupational health and safety do not apply to the large informal sector. On December 9, a building fire in New Delhi killed 43 persons. The building did not have appropriate fire licenses and was illegally operating as a factory.
The law mandates a maximum eight-hour workday and 48-hour workweek as well as safe working conditions, which include provisions for restrooms, cafeterias, medical facilities, and ventilation. The law mandates a minimum rest period of 30 minutes after every four hours of work and premium pay for overtime, but it does not mandate paid holidays. The law prohibits compulsory overtime, but it does not limit the amount of overtime a worker can perform. Occupational safety and health standards set by the government were generally up to date and covered the main industries in the country.
State governments are responsible for enforcing minimum wages, hours of work, and safety and health standards. The number of inspectors generally was insufficient to enforce labor law. State governments often did not effectively enforce the minimum wage law for agricultural workers. Enforcement of safety and health standards was poor, especially in the informal sector, but also in some formal-sector industries. Penalties for violation of occupational safety and health standards were not sufficient to deter violations.
Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in the informal sector. Small, low-technology factories frequently exposed workers to hazardous working conditions. Undocumented foreign workers did not receive basic occupational health and safety protections. In many instances workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.
On April 10, a total of 10 female workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act program in the Narayanpet District of Telangana died in a landslide. Civil society activists cited unsafe work conditions as leading to the fatal accident, noting that the workers were resting in the shade of a mud mound, which collapsed and killed them. The Telangana government announced that cash compensation, housing, employment, and education would be provided to the immediate family members of the deceased.