India is a founder member of the International Labour Organization. So far
India has ratified 47 Conventions of the ILO, and influence of ILO Conventions
as a standard of reference for labour legislation and practices in India, and
not as a legally binding norm, has been significant. Even where India may not
be in a position to ratify a Convention, it has generally voted in favour of the
Conventions reserving its position as far as its future ratification is
Importantly, in February 2010 the Government of India effectively signed up to
the decent work programme by agreeing a five-year Decent Work Country
with the ILO. Currently, India is implementing third DWCP(2018-22)
in collaboration with ILO.
However, with the recent dilution or suspension of Labour Laws in several Indian
states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, Goa, Odisha and
Rajasthan, in the backdrop of COVID-19 found to be the blatant violation of
International Labour Standards codified by ILO. The specific International
Labour Standards that are violated in the process of dilution or suspension of
Labour Laws by different states are Core Convention of ILO (Eight hour working
day), Right to Freedom of Association (ILO Convention 87), Right to collective
bargaining(ILO Convention 98) and Tripartite Consultation Convention 1976(ILO
Convention 144). India have not ratified ILO Convention 87 and 98 till date.
From its founding in 1919 the ILO worked mainly through establishing
international labour conventions which member countries faced pressure to sign
up to. Once signed up, member countries were legally required to implement the
conventions, whilst being monitored by the ILO. Neoliberalism stalled this
process, with employers and leading neoliberal governments blocking new
conventions and seeking to roll back existing labour standards.
The decent work programme broke this stalemate. Instead of seeking to establish
new legally binding conventions this programme focused on eight core conventions
within a broad, non-binding framework concerned with fairness, decency
and other value-laden but imprecise descriptors. The four strategic objectives
of the ILO decent work programme
have remained constant since they were
launched in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at
- Rights at work, grounded in fundamental principles of work and
international labour standards
- Employment and income opportunities
- Social protection and social security
- Social dialogue and tripartism (ILO 1998).
The eight core labour conventions that member countries were compelled to sign
up to as part of the declaration were conventions against child labour and
forced labour, and conventions for free collective bargaining and
non-discrimination against groups of labour on the grounds of gender, race,
religion etc. Subsequently, most member countries have signed the eight core
conventions and decent work has become part and parcel of the development policy
discourse of both international organizations (UN, World Bank, IMF) and member
However, the influence of the decent work programme on conditions of work on the
ground has remained very much limited. The ILO has no powers of enforcement at
its disposal, apart from naming and shaming
those in breach of
conventions. Compared to the economic and political power of capital and of
neoliberal governments, and even compared to the sanctions available to the WTO
(the international agency charged with policing trade liberalization), the
solely discursive powers of the ILO are extremely weak. At the international
level no enforceable agreements have been reached concerning fair
The existing long-term decline in the proportion of poor Employees and of
vulnerable workers appears to mainly relate to economic growth and tightening of
labour markets as well as to policies reflecting such labour market changes in
countries such as China and Brazil. Only in Brazil some of the improvements for
workers be linked directly to the implementation of comprehensive decent work
Conditions at work for ordinary workers are barely mapped internationally, apart
from quite general divisions between good jobs, poor jobs and no jobs, with
national averages only drawn up in broad brushstrokes following per capita
income levels. Regarding the actual implementation of the declaration of
fundamental principles and rights at work, most ILO effort has gone into the
eradication of child labour.
Eradication of forced labour is another ILO decent work priority area. While the
ILO has succeeded in creating a fair amount of public awareness in this area,
the actual impact is yet to be evaluated. The social security aspect of the
decent work programme has received a good deal of attention in recent years. In
2008 the UN committed itself to country-specific social protection programme
consisting of a basic set of rights and transfers enabling access to a minimum
of goods and services for all (ILO and WHO 2009:
This was confirmed and specified further by the ILO yearly International Labour
Conference in 2011, and the 2012 conference aims to set international standards
for social security (ILO 2011b; 2011c). This goes hand in hand with national
policy developments. Social security coverage tends to improve with rising per
capita income but with some significant variations between countries (ILO 2010c:
It also relates to global economic policies and realities: while neoliberal
globalization and related policies initially led to a rolling back of (mainly
employment-related) social security schemes (Gough 2003), Case studies show that
a crucial factor has been the underlying balance of power between social forces
in the concerned countries.
Also here, Brazil is one of the countries bearing the torch, with a
comprehensive social security approach including cash transfers, which has
contributed to successful poverty reduction in that country during the first
part of the twenty-first century. Countries such as Chile and Mexico have
registered progress in this area as well.
India probably has the most comprehensive legal structure for labour welfare and
protection in the world. But the 92 percent of Indias workers who are in
informal employment do not form part of this. As the Indian government's
National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) concluded,
informal workers do not enjoy comprehensive protection of minimum conditions
(NCEUS 2009: 180).
Most labour market laws only relate to formal sector companies, as
establishments employing below a certain number of workers are exempt from them.
This includes main labour laws such as the Factories Act
health, safety and welfare of workers, the Industrial Employment Act which deals
with conditions of employment, and the Industrial Disputes Act. The NCEUS (2007:
155-168) outlines the laws which apply to some sections of informalized labour.
This includes the Minimum Wages Act, but the guaranteeing of (very low) minimum
wages is rendered farcical by the fact that even the governments own employment
programs are openly entitled to pay workers less than this stipulated amount.
Informalized workers in enterprises with more than five workers employed should
also be covered by the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act which stipulates minimum
conditions and pay for migrant workers and by the Contract Workers Act (when
more than ten workers are employed) which regulate the market for cheap contract
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act which outlaws forced labour and the
Child Labour (prohibition and regulation) Act also cover informalized labour.
Sector-specific legislation, not least for the construction and the beedi
industries, as well as some state-specific laws, are also of relevance for
informal labour. However, as stated by the NCEUS, non-observation of all the
above laws is endemic.
it has been calculated that 85 percent of all casual workers
in rural areas and 57 percent of them in urban areas get wages below the minimum
wages 23 (NCEUS 2007: 48). The labour law enforcement machinery is extremely
thin on the ground and concentrates on formal sector inspections. Another
limitation is the very small amount of fine or penalties for violation makes the
law meaningless. For example, INR 500 for breaking the Minimum Wages Act.
Presently the trend is towards further deregulation and simplification of labour
laws and inspections, not towards the implementation of the existing regulatory
framework, let alone making it more comprehensive for informal sector workers.
To add insult to injury, none of the above regulations cover the 57 percent of
Indian workers who are self-employed (NCEUS 2007: 155-168). By now it should be
clear that Government of India policies are far from aligned to the decent work
programme advocated by ILO.
In fact, the Ministry of Labour and Employment states categorically that the
first objective of the Ministry is to achieve employment for any potential
worker and only afterwards is it appropriate to consider the quality of work -
it is even stated that decent work will follow automatically
employment has been achieved. The ILO would agree that employment creation is an
important part of the decent work programme but it is a core aspect of the
programme that employment creation cannot be separated from the need to create
Opposed to this, it appears that for the foreseeable future GoI wants to keep
conditions of work in the informal economy as unregulated as they are today.
This extreme rejection of the need to improve conditions of work, except at
some point in the future, is opposed even by organizations such as the IMF (IMF
2010), and is also in direct contradiction to the objectives of the ILO-India
Decent Work Country Programme. COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the scenario to
Another contradiction is that India has ratified six out of the eight
core/fundamental International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions. These are
the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Abolition of Forced Labour
Convention, 1957 (No. 105), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100),
Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), Minimum
Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999
(No. 182). India has not ratified the core/fundamental Conventions, namely
Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948
(No. 87) and Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No.
The main reason for non-ratification of ILO Conventions No.87 & 98 is due to
certain restrictions imposed on the Government servants. As communicated by
Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT), the ratification of these conventions
would involve granting of certain rights that are prohibited under the statutory
rules, for the Government employees, namely, to strike work, to openly criticize
Government policies, to freely accept financial contribution, to freely join
foreign organizations etc.
In addition, official statistics show successes in dealing with child labour but
this is disputed by NGOs and even by NCEUS (ILO 2010c: 23, ITUC 2011, NCEUS
2007: 165). Regarding forced labour, there has been no measurable success even
though the legislation actually bans forced labour.
The overall conclusion is that government does not seriously want to regulate
labour markets in the informal economy with regard to conditions of recruitment,
work and pay, not even regarding the worst forms of undecent work. It is in
spite of this that the ILO has signed the decent work country programme with
India, while quietly making an exception to the formal minimum requirements of
the decent work programme in order to get India on board
One area within the decent work agenda where India has taken significant
initiatives is social protection, with three major initiatives. First and
foremost, in 2005 the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act became law.
While NREGA suffers problems such as corruption and only partial implementation,
in the two first years it did manage to deliver on average 42 to 43 days of work
to each participant. The second main initiative is the social security bill
which was passed in 2008. The third major initiative is the National Food
Security Act 2013 which aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately
two thirds of India's 1.3 billion people.
Overall, Indian social policies take a non-universal approach. Of the programs,
NREGA stands out as the one national social policy initiative which has
importance in a pro-labour perspective, but it has not counteracted the
increased inequality which has been documented, at least for the first decade of
neo-liberalism in India.
The decent work-related policies in India are closely linked to the general
relationship between workers, employers and the government in India. The Indian
government is not the main driver of the decent work agenda. Today in India,
organized labour is reduced to negotiating from a position of weakness, mainly
seeking to avoid job losses and cutbacks while informal contract workers and
self-employed workers are on the rise.
Global competitiveness is, of course, an argument often used in support of such
policies and it is indeed the case that a major export sector, such as the
garment industry, is heavily informal in nature; but so too are domestic sectors
such as construction.
It is hardly surprising that workplace or wage-related actions by informal
labour are very rare and that organizations working with labour in informal
employment often channel their efforts towards workers access to government
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