Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
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 January approximately 25 million workers across the country went on a day-long strike to protest against the economic policies of the federal government.
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. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. 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 sometimes impeded registration of unions, repressed independent union activity, and 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.
In September parliament passed a series of labor laws that exempt tens of thousands of small firms from labor protections. The new laws link social benefits to the size of companies and raise the threshold from 100 to 300 workers for firms that must comply with new limitations on firings and business closures. The new threshold rescinds the rights to strike or receive benefits for workers at smaller firms. The reforms replaced 44 labor laws with four labor codes that labor experts predicted would further expand the informal-sector workforce, which had more than 400 million workers, where workers do not have formal contracts and benefits.
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. 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 reported 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; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. For example, bonded labor is 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.
Authorities decreased investigations, prosecutions, and case convictions of traffickers and decreased victim identification efforts. NGOs estimated at least eight million trafficking victims in the country, mostly in bonded labor, and reported that police did not file reports in at least half of these cases. Authorities penalized some adult and child victims for crimes their traffickers compelled them to commit.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the federally funded, state-run Centrally Sponsored Scheme assisted 11,296 bonded laborers from June 2016 through February 2020. Some 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. 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. Since authorities often registered bonded labor cases as civil salary violations, convictions of the traffickers and full compensation for victims remained rare.
Bonded labor continued to be a concern in many states; however, no reliable statistics were available on the number of bonded laborers in the country. 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. Those from the most disadvantaged social strata were the most vulnerable to forced labor and labor trafficking.
On March 12, Karnataka law enforcement officials, in cooperation with the state’s human rights commission and a local NGO, rescued 50 bonded laborers from three plantations in Bengaluru. The rescued laborers were all from the Irular tribe (listed in the Schedule Castes and Tribes); at least 15 of those rescued were children. The owners of two plantations were arrested under laws prohibiting bonded labor and trafficking of persons.
In May, 67 bonded laborers were rescued from a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh with the assistance of the NHRC and NGO Justice Ventures International. The rescued workers included women and children and were returned to their villages in Bihar.
In June, 12 members of a vulnerable tribal group in Telangana received compensation of 150,000 rupees (more than $2,000) each under the bonded labor rehabilitation assistance of the central government. These were part of the 45 bonded laborers rescued from an irrigation project site in 2018.
The Sumangali or “Provident Funds” scheme remained common in Tamil Nadu’s spinning mill industry, in which employers offer a lump sum for young women’s education at the end of multiyear labor contracts, which often amounted to bonded labor.
News media and NGOs reported several instances of migrants and bonded labor abandoned at workplaces without work or financial assistance from their employers during the COVID-19 lockdown. On June 1, the Telangana High Court directed the state government to arrange for food, shelter, and transportation for an estimated 150,000 workers stranded in the 810 brick kilns across the state. The petitioner pointed out that owners were mandated under the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act to arrange for transportation of the migrant workers, but this was not done in the case of brick kiln workers.
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.
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 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 worked 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 common.
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 not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, and authorities sporadically enforced them. The fines collected are deposited in a welfare fund for formerly employed children.
The International Labor Organization estimated there were 10 million child workers between ages five and 14 in the country. 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. Children were also exploited in domestic service and in the sugarcane, construction, textile, cotton, and glass bangle industries in addition to begging.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). Nonstate armed groups recruited and used children as young as 12 to organize hostility against the government in Jammu and Kashmir, including Maoist and Naxalite groups. Nonstate armed groups sometimes forced children to handle weapons and explosive devices and used them as human shields, sexual slaves, informants, and spies.
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.
In May, 900 children were rescued from bangle manufacturing factories in Jaipur by a local antitrafficking unit. Of the children, 25 were working as bonded laborers and the rest were engaged in child labor, all ages 10 to 13. They were malnourished and exhausted and alleged experiences of inhuman treatment and violence. In August, 47 child workers, including 13 girls, were rescued by the Jalandhar police from a rubber footwear factory. Most of the rescued children were migrants from other states and Nepal.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
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 employment discrimination against individuals with communicable diseases or based on color, religion, political opinion, national origin, or citizenship.
The law prohibits women from working in jobs that are physically or morally harmful, specifically the Factories Act 1948, Sections 27, 66, and 87, and the Bombay Shops and Establishments Act of 1948, Section 34-A, although the latter only applies to four states.
The government effectively enforced the law and regulations within the formal sector; however, penalties were not sufficient to defer violations. The law and regulations do not protect informal-sector workers (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. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women raised concerns regarding the continued presence of sexual harassment and violence against women and girls and the repercussions on school and labor participation.
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.
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 and limits the amount of overtime a worker may 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. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. 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 commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.
To boost the economy following the COVID-19-induced lockdown, many state governments relaxed labor laws to permit overtime work beyond legislated limits. The state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat passed executive orders to suspend enforcement of most labor laws for a period of up to three years to promote industrial production.
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.
Several states amended labor laws during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow industries to overcome the losses suffered during the lockdown while also claiming to protect the interests of workers. On May 29, the Odisha cabinet amended the Factories Act, 1948, and Industrial Disputes Act, allowing companies with a worker strength of up to 300 to terminate employment or close the units without prior approval from the government. The earlier limit was 100 workers. The government also allowed women to work during night shift hours of 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., with prior consent from the worker.
According to Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union, more than 30 industrial accidents occurred in chemical plants, coal mines, steel factories, and boilers in power stations during May and June, claiming at least 75 lives. The organization stated “widespread use of contract workers, lack of safety inspections, inadequate penal action against safety violations and not fixing responsibility on the employer are some important factors contributing to the accidents.”
On May 7, a styrene gas leak from an LG Polymer chemical plant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, killed 11 persons and sickened more than 1,000. Preliminary investigations revealed the leak occurred due to a faulty gas valve. On July 7, state police arrested 12 individuals, including the company’s chief executive officer, after a probe determined poor safety protocols and a breakdown of emergency response procedures as reasons for the leak.
On July 2, four individuals died of asphyxiation in Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu, after entering a septic tank to remove clogged sewage. The homeowner who directed them to clean the tank was charged with negligence. A government survey in 2019 identified 206 deaths from cleaning sewers and septic tanks between 1993 and July 2019 in Tamil Nadu.
On August 1, a total of 11 workers died when a crane collapsed on them at a worksite in the government-owned Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam.
On August 21, nine workers, including seven employees of the state-owned power generation company, died in a fire accident in the Srisailam hydropower station in Telangana. A government committee assessed an electric short circuit caused the fire. Civil society activists alleged the accident was “a result of inadequate provisions in the design of the hydropower station building,” claiming “there is no evidence that the hydropower station was built to international standards.”