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.
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 child labor (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. Prosecutions were rare. When inspectors referred violations for prosecution, court backlogs, inadequate preparation, and a lack of prioritization of these cases by prosecuting authorities sometimes resulted in acquittals.
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 of up to five years’ imprisonment, and the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act), which prescribes penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment, which were not sufficiently stringent.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment continued to work with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to combat bonded labor. Based on the ILO’s concluded “convergence program,” the Odisha government entered into agreements with brick kiln owners in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to protect workers vulnerable to bonded labor.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the federally funded, state-run Centrally Sponsored Scheme assisted in the release of 5,295 bonded laborers during the period April 2017 through March. Some NGOs reported delays in obtaining release certificates for rescued bonded laborers that were required to certify that employers had held them in bondage and entitled them to compensation under the law. The distribution of rehabilitation funds was uneven across states.
Estimates of the number of bonded laborers varied widely. Official government estimates place 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 several states. On March 15, 155 migrant bonded laborers, including 31 children and 63 women, were rescued from a brick kiln in Tiruvallur, Tamil Nadu, by an NGO in cooperation with the district administration. Most of the rescued persons were paid less than 200 rupees ($3.00) a week. Police registered a case against the owner of the brick kiln. On August 1, government officials in Karimnagar District, Telangana, invoked section 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement) of the Indian Penal Code to rescue 32 tribal workers from labor bondage at an irrigation canal worksite. The investigation revealed that each worker was paid an advance remuneration of 20,000 rupees ($280) for 12 hours of work every day for nine months.
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 www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits employment of children younger than age 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 age 18 is prohibited, and where children younger than age 14 are prohibited from helping, including family enterprises. The law, however, permits employment of children in family-owned enterprises involving nonhazardous activities after school hours. Nevertheless, child labor remained widespread.
State governments enforced labor laws and employed labor inspectors, while the Ministry of Labor and Employment provided oversight and coordination. Violations remained common. The law establishes a penalty in the range of 20,000 rupees ($280) to 50,000 rupees ($700) per child employed in hazardous industries. Such fines were often insufficient to deter violations, and authorities sporadically enforced them. The fines 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). The NGO Child Rights and You stated in a July report that 23 million children between ages 15 and 18 worked in nonhazardous industries.
According to news reports, in a series of raids in February, district authorities and NGOs jointly rescued more than 150 child workers from roadside eateries, vehicle repair shops, artificial jewelry making units, and textile shops in the Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh.
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.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law and regulations prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status with respect to employment and occupation. The law does not prohibit discrimination against individuals with HIV/AIDS or other communicable diseases, color, religion, political opinion, national origin, or citizenship.
The government effectively enforces the law and regulations within the formal sector. Penalties for violations included fines up to 93,750 rupees ($1,320), prison term ranging from three months to two years, or both. 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.
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 range from a fine of 100,000 rupees ($1,410) to imprisonment for up to two years, but they 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 February 16, seven workers at a farm in Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh, died allegedly due to asphyxiation caused by inhaling poisonous gases when they stepped into a septic tank without wearing protective gear to clean a flushing machine. On September 10, five workers in West Delhi engaged to clean a septic tank for an apartment building died when they were overcome by fumes.