India’s economy is largely fueled by the manufacturing industry, which employs millions of people across the country.
Despite regulations designed to protect workers’ rights, Indian workers frequently face poor factory conditions.
This article assesses factory conditions and workers’ rights in India.
Industry in India
The manufacturing industry is one of India’s top sources of national revenue, accounting for 19% of its national gross income. The manufacturing industry employs over 27 million people in India, and brings in approximately $348 billion per year. Along with other labor sectors, such as oil and mining, India’s labor industry employs 450 million people across the country. The leading industries in India include:
- Garments and textiles
Indian industries are heavily regulated with policies and guidelines that exceed those of other developing nations (see Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia). In 1948, India enacted the Factory Act as a means to protect workers through strict regulation. However, violations of these regulations are widespread in modern times, leading to worker exploitation in the forms of:
- Low wages
- Long hours
- Hazardous conditions
These three factors are primarily used to assess working conditions in developing nations. In addition, India also faces child labor and failing social security measures to protect workers, leading to industries exploiting workers for profit without the risk of governmental intervention.
Wages across India vary, with industry workers in rural areas making approximately $170 per month, and urban workers making approximately $230. This is extensively higher than the national minimum wage, which is $62 per month as of 2021. In addition, average working wages have steadily increased year by year, and have more than doubled since 1993.
However, a growing number of manufacturing industries withhold pay from their employees and continuously decrease salaries. Due largely in part to the severe financial strain caused by Covid, many industries are looking to improve their profit by exploiting workers and forcing slavery-like conditions with a severe lack of worker compensation. This exploitation is backed by the government, which in 2021 significantly decreased government intervention and suspended labor laws in industry to generate higher national revenue.
This suspension in labor laws can result in many industries across India decreasing workers’ pay to well below minimum wage, which is already approximately 42% of the cost of living in most regions.
Decreasing wages not only limit workers’ abilities to provide for themselves and their families, but forces extensive working hours to make up for lost wages.
In India, the majority of industries are required by law to limit working hours to 48 hours per week and provide paid overtime to employees. While this is significantly more progressive with regards to workers’ rights and the prevention of forced labor in comparison to other developing countries, many industries violate these regulations.
Informal workers, including those who work on short-term contracts and in bonded labor, are often exempt from the maximum workweek regulations. As a result, people can be working up to 12-hours per day, seven days a week.
In addition, with recent economic setbacks resulting from Covid, many industries are attempting to make up for lost revenue by increasing production through extensive working hours, with many sectors increasing shifts to 15-hours.
While India’s labor laws have previously been progressive for formal workers, current labor setbacks are substantial in worsening India’s working conditions, and may pose long-term threats to workers’ rights.
While India has previously regulated strong labor laws limiting working hours and providing suitable worker compensation, many industries still struggle with dangerous environments. Safety regulations exist to protect worker health and safety, but many of these are improperly implemented or only regulated for the higher economic classes, resulting in many low-class workers being exposed to dangerous conditions.
India’s most prominent industries include footwear, steel, and chemical production, which expose workers to particularly hazardous conditions. Workers in these industries face exposure to dangerous chemicals like benzene and toluene, both topical and airborne. Long-term exposure to these substances can result in the development of terminal illnesses, such as cancers.
In addition to chemical exposure, much of India’s industrial architecture is outdated and does not meet safety regulations. Injuries and casualties are frequently caused by factory accidents and structural failures in buildings. As a result, structural collapse is a frequent cause of death and injury throughout India. One study reported an average of 4 deaths out of every 10,000 workers, and an injury prevalence of 1.3 out of every 1,000 workers. The majority of casualties were a result of unprotected machinery, including crushing and binding machines. These deaths and injuries were most often avoidable with the implementation of appropriate safety precautions, including guardrails, emergency stop mechanisms, and proper employee training.
India faces several other prominent concerns in the health and safety of factory workers, largely:
- Lack of social security
- Child labor
A lack of social security in the Indian workforce leads to millions of workers being left without benefits, job security, and equitable pay. Many are forced to agree to verbal contracts, which leave them unable to legally dispute pay discrepancies and significantly diminishes their job security. This lack of social security also reduces worker compensation and protection, and leaves over 50% of India’s labor force without basic benefits, including paid leave, maternity leave, and health insurance.
Failing social security also poses a major threat to female workers, who are often discriminated against through harassment and lower pay. While the gender pay gap in India has continuously improved since the 1990s, women still earn an average of 22% less than their male coworkers. In some regions of India, women can make as little as $0.15 per hour in the garment industry, less than half of what men earn on minimum wage.
The lack of social security in India poses a growing risk to workers, who lack the surety of job security and equitable pay from their employers.
Despite child labor laws enacted in 1948 by India’s Factory Act, Indian industries employ over 8.3 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 across the country. The majority work for the agriculture, manufacturing, and mining industries, where they work long hours with extremely minimal pay. Many work as much as 12-hours per day, seven days a week, far more than what would be allowed for working adults under labor laws.
These children are highly susceptible to work injuries, including machinery accidents, burns, and physical stressors from overworking. In addition, children are more prone to machinery accidents due to under-developed motor functions.
The majority of children in labor positions are a product of human trafficking, placed in jobs by their parents who could not care for them due to the extreme poverty in India.
Many organizations are working to reduce child labor in India; however major setbacks have occurred due to the increased poverty from Covid.
Although working conditions in India were once among the highest in developing countries, India’s labor regulation has undergone a rapid decline in recent decades. Failing social security, a rise of child labor, and a push for higher production has put workers under severe exploitation from employers.