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Origin and Development of Trade Unions in Pre-Independent India

The need for coordination of the activities of various unions led to the beginning of the trade union movement in India following the First World War. Over time, the movement steadily extended to practically all industrial locations and became an essential component of India's industrial process. The Printers' Union, established in Calcutta in 1905, and the Bombay Postal Union, established in 1907, are the first known examples of these unions.

During this time, a number of trade unions were established, including the All India Railwaymen's Federation in 1922, the Bengal Trade Union Federation in 1922, the Madras Labour Union in 1918, and the All India Trade Union Congress in 1920[1]. Additionally, the nation's industries are now strongly unionised.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Indian National Trade Union Congress and the All India Trade Union Congress are currently regarded as India's three biggest trade unions. Trade union-represented employees have a lot of room to grow when employment increases. Currently, India has about 11,556 registered trade unions, in addition to an undetermined number of unregistered trade unions dispersed throughout a wide range of industries[2].

Meaning of Trade Union

A trade union acts as a link between the management of a industry and the workers of that industry. It is an organised group of workers who aim to help the workers on issues relating to equitable pay, a comfortable workplace, reasonable work hours, and other benefits to which they ought to be entitled in lieu of their labour.

Section 2 of the The Trade Unions Act[3], defines the term 'Trade union' as:
"Trade Union means any combination, whether temporary or permanent, formed primarily for the purpose of regulating the relations between workmen and employers or between workmen and workmen, or between employers and employers, or for imposing restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business, and includes any federation of two or more Trade Unions."

The History of Trade Unionism in India

Trade unionism in India has a rich and complex history that can be traced back to the colonial era. It has played a pivotal role in shaping labor rights, influencing policy decisions, and advocating for the welfare of workers. The emergence of trade unionism in India can be attributed to the harsh working conditions, exploitative practices, and low wages faced by laborers during British colonial rule[4].

In the 1600s, the British came to India and started to establish a strong foothold in the sub-continent, by setting up factories and mills in India, similar to what happened in the Britain during the Industrial revolution. India was known for its vast abundant resources and land coupled with availability of cheap labour, thus proving to be the best place to harbour rapid growing industrial demand for machine-made products. Thus, in 1851 the British set up the first cotton mill in Bombay and in 1855, the first jute mill was established.

The conditions of the workers in India was worse. They were often subjected to harsh treatment, pitiable working conditions, long working hours and could be expelled anytime. As industrialization gained momentum, Indian laborers sought collective means to address their grievances. Abolishing the miserable plight and difficulties of factory workers, social reformer Sorabjee Shahpurjee Bengali led a movement in Bombay in 1855 that is credited with establishing the foundation of the labour movement in India.

A Brahmo preacher from Calcutta named Shri C.P. Majumdar founded eight night schools in Bombay in 1872. The 'Working Men's Mission' was established in Calcutta by the Brahmo Samaj in 1878[5]. All these initiatives to inform and unite the workforce indirectly assisted in instilling a sense of "collective action" and agitation, amongst the workers.

Fearing the consequences of the growing discontent and unrest among the, now united, labour class, the colonial government tried to introduce some legislations to resolve the situation. The pressure from the social reformers like Shri Sorabji Shahpurjee Bengali and an external pressure from the traders of Lancashire (a Textile Centre in England) compelled the Government to move and on the basis of the report of a Factories Commission, set up in 1879, the First Indian Factories Act was enacted in 1881, The Act proved to be inadequate and caused a great disappointment. The government appointed a second factory commission in 1884 to look into the demands of the workers.

The Indian National Congress was formed in the year 1885, which can be attributed with emergence of new ideas and hopes for achievement of rights and freedom for workers. Congress brought together leaders such as Lokmanya Tilak, Annie Beasant, Mahatma Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai. These leaders nurtured the sapling of Industrial development in the initial stages.

During this time, Narayan Meghaji Lokhandey emerged as the first labour leader in India. He rendered valuable assistance to the commission. The commission also considered the workers memorandum and made certain recommendations but the government did not take any action. Thus, to press the demands of the labourers, he set up an association of them, called called the Bombay Mill Hands Association[6]. This is often referred to as the starting point of Indian Labour Movement.

Based on the recommendations of the Factory Commission, the Indian Factories Act of 1891 was passed. The important provisions of the Act were, the regulation of hours of work for women labour to 11 hours a day with rest interval for one and half hours and the raising of the minimum age of children to be engaged for work in factories to 9 hours.

Post World War- I Period

The out-break of the first world was in 1914 gave impetus to Industrialization. Suddenly, there was a sudden diversion of all resources to cater to war needs, and Indian mill owners took the opportunity of the increased demand of Indian goods. The workers had to bear the burden of the economic crisis. Further, there was mass-awakening among the workers, who got influenced by the ideas of "social equality and aspiration for better life."

These ideas were brought by Indian soldiers who had been to abroad[7]. Trade Unions started to form in India to press such demand, but the progress was slow due to lack of leadership. In 1918 under the presidentship of Mr B.P. Wadia, the first major trade union was formed, called the Madras Labour Union, followed by the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress in 1920.

The period, post-world war. Of 1918-21 is also regarded as the epoch-making period in the history of the Indian Labour movement. Mahatma Gandhi initiated the non-cooperation movement in the beginning of 1919. His leadership provided a direction to the labour movement, because he was respected among all sections of the society equally and because of his ability to mobilise the masses.

In 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) came into existence, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, based on the belief that universal and lasting peace can be ensured only if it is based on social justice[8]. The ILO's main focus areas, including the control of working hours and labour supply, the prevention of unemployment and the payment of a living wage, the social protection of workers, children, and women, are still relevant today. The Preamble also acknowledges a number of important principles, such as freedom of association and equal pay for equally valuable work. It also emphasises the significance of vocational and technical education.

Buckingham Mill Case[9]

The 1921 Buckingham and Carnatic Mills strike, which unfolded in the bustling city of Madras (now Chennai), was a watershed moment in the history of Indian labor movements during the colonial era. This strike, often referred to simply as the "B&C Mills Strike," marked a significant turning point in the struggle for workers' rights, fair wages, and better working conditions in India's burgeoning textile industry. The hardships faced by workers, such as low wages, unsafe working conditions and lack of job security, fuelled discontent and created fertile ground for organized labor movements to take root.

The 1921 strike was triggered by the refusal of the management to raise the wages of their workers. B.P. Wadia, a prominent labor leader and social activist, was the leader of the strike and played an important role to unite the workers and put forward their demands. The strike commenced on February 1, 1921, with workers from the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills walking off the job. What started as a local strike soon gained momentum as workers from other mills in Madras joined the protest. The streets of Madras witnessed mass demonstrations, with workers demanding not just wage increases but also better working conditions and job security.

The strike was seen as a threat, to law and order by the government leading to the deployment of troops to suppress the protests. Despite facing measures the workers showed resilience. Carried on with their struggle.

The B&C Mills Strike in 1921 had an impact on Indias labor movement resulting in significant outcomes[10];

  1. Recognition of Workers Rights; The strike successfully brought attention to the demands of workers highlighting the importance of wages, reasonable working hours and improved working conditions. Although not all objectives were immediately achieved it paved the way for labor reforms.
  2. Solidarity Among Workers; The strike acted as a catalyst for unity among laborers across industries. It demonstrated that collective action could bring about change and inspired movements throughout India.
  3. Rise of Trade Unions; The success of the strike in drawing attention to workers issues encouraged the formation of trade unions, which played a role, in advocating for labor rights.
The enduring influence of this strike can be observed through labor reforms and the establishment of trade unions that persistently champion workers rights in our nation today.

It stands as a reminder of the strength that comes from efforts and the ongoing struggle, for equal rights and respect for workers, throughout India's past.

Role of Legislations

After the first world war, the cost of living increased drastically. This, coupled with the troubles face by the workers led to agitation against the colonial government. In March, 1921, Shri N. M. Joshi, then General Secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, successfully moved a resolution in the Central Legislative Assembly recommending that Government should introduce legislation for the registration and protection of trade unions. Opposition from employers to the adoption of such a measure was, however, so great that it was not until 1926 that the Indian Trade Unions Act was passed[11].

The Trade Union Act gave some rights to the Trade Unions, thus establishing peace and stability among the workers. One of the significant developments during this period, after India became a founding member of the International Labour Organisation, was the passing of legislation which centred around the plight of the workers[12]. The legislations, along with giving certain rights to the workers, also gave recognition to their associations. This ensured peace and feeling of contentment among the workers, which resulted in less strikes and lockouts by the workers.

Workmen Compensation Act, 1923[13]

The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923, aims to provide financial protection to workers and their dependents in the event of work-related injuries or death. This act is now known as the Employees' Compensation Act, 1923[14]. The act was passed in wake of surge in industrialization and the growth of factories and industries. With industrialization came a rise in workplace accidents and injuries. Workers, often from economically vulnerable backgrounds, faced severe hardships due to workplace accidents, and their families suffered from the loss of income earners in case of fatalities.

The act provides for Compensation for Injuries to employees who suffer injuries or diseases arising out of and in the course of their employment. This compensation covers medical expenses, disability, and loss of income due to the injury. It also contains provisions for benefits to the dependents in case of an employee's death due to a work-related injury[15]. This financial support is crucial for the well-being of the worker's family. The act also places the liability for compensation squarely on the employer. Employers are required to secure compensation by insuring their liability with an insurance company or by depositing funds with the government.

The Act is Important in Trade Unionism Development as it guaranteed protection to workers by guaranteeing protection of worker's rights. Secondly, the act plays a vital role in negotiating better working conditions and safety measures for workers. The act's provisions for compensation provide a powerful incentive for employers to improve safety standards, as accidents can result in financial liabilities. In case of disputes or non-payment of compensation, trade unions can take legal recourse on behalf of injured workers or their dependents. This underscores the significance of trade unions in ensuring the enforcement of workers' rights under the act.

This act remains a cornerstone of labor legislation in India, ensuring that the welfare of workers and their dependents is a priority in the industrial landscape.

The Trade Unions Act, 1926[16]

The Trade Union act of 1926, is regarded as a landmark legislation passed by the British Government in India to provide legal protection to and recognise the Trade Unions. For the first time, a law was enacted to define law relating to trade unions registered under this act.

The act is of great significance as it laid down the laws which formalised the existence and function of trade unions in India. Earlier, the trade unions used to operate without any legislative protection and their activities were often termed as suspicious and hostile. The act's main purpose was to promote collective bargaining, legitimize trade unions and establishing guidelines for their registration and functioning, thus facilitating negotiations between employers and employees.

Development of the Act:

he Act was amended in 1929 to provide for the procedure of appeal against the decisions of the Registrar. An appeal against the decision of registrar, where he has refused to register any trade union or when registration was withdrawn.

The Indian Trade Unions Act, 1926 made provision for registration of a Trade Union after fulfilling the requisite conditions but the employer was under no obligation either to recognise or to deal with a Trade Union even if it was a registered one. The Act was amended in the year 1947 providing for compulsory recognition by employers of representative Trade Unions. Provisions regarding recognition and rules regarding them were added to the act.

The Amending Act of 1947 did not provide for inspection of books of Trade Unions by the Registrar of Trade Unions. In 1950, a Trade Union Bill, seeking to make some new provisions concerning them was introduced in Parliament. This Bill lapsed with the dissolution of Parliament.

The Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Act of 1960 made some changes in sections 2 (f), 3, 4, 6, 14, 16 and 28 of the Act. By the Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Act of 1964 the word 'Indian' has been deleted from the Act.

The following are the provisions of the Trade Union Act, 1926:

  • Definition (section 2): The act defines a trade union as any combination of workmen or employers by which they aim to regulate relations between employees and employers or impose restrictive conditions on trade.
  • Registration (section 3 to section 14): Trade unions can apply for registration under the act. Registration grants them legal status and certain privileges, including protection from civil suits related to trade disputes.
  • Rights and Liabilities (section 15 to section 28): Registered trade unions have certain rights, such as the right to own property and the right to sue and be sued in the name of the union. They are also liable for legal actions.
  • Regulations (section 29 and section 30): The act outlines provisions for the constitution of trade unions, rules for their registration, and the grounds for cancellation of registration.
  • Penalties (section 31 to section 33): It prescribes penalties for actions such as wrongful exclusion from trade unions and false statements during registration.
Over the years, it has played a crucial role in protecting the interests of workers, promoting collective bargaining, and maintaining industrial peace in India.

The Trade Disputes Act, 1929[17]

Prior to the year 1947, The Trade Disputes Act, 1929 used to settle industrial disputes, This act is now replaced by the Industrial Disputes act. Principal object of the Act was to provide a conciliation machinery to bring about peaceful settlement of industrial disputes. The Act authorized the central and state governments to establish a board of conciliation or the court of inquiry to investigate into and settle industrial disputes. These tribunals were set up on ad hoc basis.

The act prohibited strikes and lock outs in public utility services without prior notice. Such strikes were illegal and punishable under the Act.

Strike for any purpose Other than furtherance of an industrial dispute was also declared illegal.

Payment of Wages Act, 1936[18]

The Payment of Wages Act, 1936, was enacted to regulate the payment of wages to certain classes of employed persons and to ensure that wages are disbursed promptly and fairly. It is significant because it plays a crucial role in the development of trade unionism.

Before the enactment of this law, laborers in India faced numerous challenges related to wage payments. Many employers would delay or withhold wages, making it difficult for workers to make ends meet and leading to industrial disputes.

The act provided for Regulation of wage payments, Fixation of Wage Periods, Deductions from Wages and Maintenance of Records.

The Payment of Wages Act, 1936 is important in development of trade unionism as it empowered the workers by ensuring that they receive their wages on time and in full. Thus ensuring financial security. It also reduced exploitation of workers by their employers, promoting fair labor practices. It also prevented disputes as wages were now timely and accurately given[19]. Further, it provided Legal Recourse In case of violations. The workers can seek legal recourse under the act. Thus, strengthening the position of trade unions and workers in negotiating with employers.

It has been a cornerstone in promoting fair labor practices and has contributed to the overall growth and development of trade unions in the country.

The country's trade unions have taken the lead in organising and educating the workforce, improving their human resource capabilities. They have worked tirelessly to foster harmony throughout the nation, which has aided in the growth of the economy. Trade unionism in India has advanced significantly, and we must support its contributions to social justice and workers' rights. To ensure its continued relevance and effectiveness in the shifting economic environment, however, significant challenges must be overcome. Trade unions can keep

  • Avtar Singh, Introduction to Labour and Industrial Laws (Lexis Nexis, Delhi, India, 4th edn., 2016).
  • Trade unionism in India, India, available at (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • The Trade Unions Act, 1926 [16 OF 1926]
  • S. N. Mishra, Labour and Industrial Laws (Central Law Publications, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, 29th edn., 2022).
  • Dr. Sanjay Upadhyaya, Evolution of Trade Unions in India (V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2022).
  • Buckingham v. Workers Of, 1953 AIR 47
  • Labour And Dravidianism: History of Buckingham and Carnatic Mills Strike, the first major industrial unrest in South India, India, available at (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • Government of NCT of Delhi, "The Trade Unions Act, 1926" (2023)
  • History of the ILO, available at (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923 [8 OF 1923]
  • The Employee's Compensation Act, 1923 [8 OF 1923]
  • The Trade Disputes Act, 1929 [7 of 1929]
  • Payment of Wages Act, 1936 [4 OF 1936]

Laws and Statutes:
  • The Constitution of India
  • The Trade Unions Act, 1926 [16 OF 1926]
  • The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923 [8 OF 1923]
  • Payment of Wages Act, 1936 [4 OF 1936]
  • The Trade Disputes Act, 1929 [7 of 1929]
  • The Employee's Compensation Act, 1923 [8 OF 1923]
  • Government of India, "Report on Trade Unions in India" (Labour Bureau Ministry of Labour & Employment, 2019)
  • Government of NCT of Delhi, "The Trade Unions Act, 1926" (2023)
  • Buckingham v. Workers Of, 1953 AIR 47
Journal Articles:
  • J.S. Sodhi, "Trade Unions in India: Changing Role & Perspective" 49 Indian Journal of Industrial Relations 169 (2013).
  • N. R. Sheth, "Trade Unions in India A Sociological Approach" 17 Sociological Bulletin 5 (1968).
  • Dr. Rasa Laxman, "Origin and Development of Trade Unions in India  a Review on Problems and Weaknesses" 10 Quest Journals Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Science 192 (2022).
  • Dr. Sanjay Upadhyaya, Evolution of Trade Unions in India (V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2022).
  • S. N. Mishra, Labour and Industrial Laws (Central Law Publications, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, 29th edn., 2022).
  • Avtar Singh, Introduction to Labour and Industrial Laws (Lexis Nexis, Delhi, India, 4th edn., 2016).
  • Trade unionism in India, India, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • First World War (1914-1918), England, United Kingdom, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • Trade Unions  The History of Labour Unions in India, India, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • History of Trade Union in India, India, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • History of the ILO, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • Trade Unionism In India: An Analysis of its Evolution, Impact, and Challenges, India, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • Trade Union Act of 1926, India, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)
  • Labour And Dravidianism: History of Buckingham and Carnatic Mills Strike, the first major industrial unrest in South India, India, available at: (last visited on October 20, 2023)

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