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Indian labour laws not enforced, says report

Women carry bricks at a Mumbai construction site/ Chris Stowers - Panos Pictures

Indian labour inspections are failing to protect workers in the informal economy, according to a recent report by the UK’s Chronic Poverty Research Centre. Rather, improved working conditions have largely been the result of international public pressure, media coverage and lobbying by human rights activists.

The informal economy employs 93 per cent of India’s workers and contributes 60 per cent of GDP, yet labour laws are not enforced to protect the majority of India’s workforce, claims the study.

“On its own, the Indian labour inspection system [laws, regulation and the labour inspection machinery] is not effective in improving labour standards,” says the study’s author Dr Priya Deshingkar, currently a research fellow at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, “Arrangements [with other organisations] involving the media, [human and civil] rights organisations, NGOs and activists have been more effective,” she adds.

The Indian government’s inspection teams have an important role to play in improving standards, says the report, as they have an intimate knowledge of the labour laws. But there needs to be tougher enforcement of the laws in both agriculture and non-agricultural industries. It found, for example that even though child labour is banned, employers in the cotton industry still use children to work in the fields.

International pressure gets results

In Gujarat, the cottonseed industry employed 91,000 children between the ages of eight and 14 in 2003-2004, according to the study. As Dr Deshingkar explains, agents recruit children by paying their parents in advance. The children then pay off their debt by working up to 13 hours a day. As a result, up to 60 per cent of these children drop out of school.

Numerous local unions and pressure groups have reported evidence of child labour to government authorities with mixed success. Once again, in this field, international public pressure has been more successful in stopping child labour, than government regulation, the report found. “The monitoring of child labour laws is probably better than other labour laws because of the high profile of child labour in international and national debates,” says Dr Deshingkar, adding however that “child labour will continue as long as there is desperate poverty.”

The report also cites Western public pressure as one of the reasons why multinational companies such as the pharmaceutical and chemical giant, and Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology group which has a subsidiary company in India, have improved their record of improving labour standards.

‘Appalling conditions’ on construction sites

By comparison, the construction industry has seen few improvements in working conditions, a fact which the study blames on a lack of political commitment and insufficient labour inspections. There are many laws to protect India’s 30 million construction workers, the report found, but they have not been enforced. “Living conditions at construction sites are appalling,” it claims, citing statistics from the International Labour Organization showing construction workers in India have the world’s highest accident rates.

In Madhya Pradesh, many construction workers are from scheduled castes (also known as Dalits and formerly known as “untouchables”) and tribes.  Many have been forced to migrate to find jobs as they have been forced off their lands or have no access to money to invest in farming. The report calls for the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act (ISMWA) of 1979 to be enforced. Mukaddams (agents) are required to sign up to the act, which ensures they provide workers with decent accommodation, crèche facilities, access to healthcare and minimum wages. However, many have not, and as a result it is almost impossible for labour inspectors and activists to prosecute them.

Dr Deshingkar believes little effort has been made to prosecute employers and agents who violate labour laws because of, “entrenched attitudes among the middle and upper classes in Indian society towards the poor.” She adds that the government is caught between trying to protect workers’ rights and liberalising the labour market. “So the government approach appears to be to pass labour laws but not actually do anything at the field level,” she concludes.

Further reading

Title: Extending labour inspections to the informal sector and agriculture


Author: Dr Priya Deshingkar

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