Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

The Global State of Workers' Rights - India

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 31 August 2010
Cite as Freedom House, The Global State of Workers' Rights - India, 31 August 2010, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Mostly Free

Trade unions can be established in India without significant government interference. The Indian Trade Unions Act of 1926 provides for the registration of unions in different states. Under the 2001 Trade Unions Act, a registered union must represent at least 100 workers, or 10 percent of the enterprise's workforce, whichever is less. Labor advocates have noted that this threshold is high by international standards. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Labor in 2002, there are about 24.6 million trade union members in India. While there is some union activity in the informal sector, the vast majority of union members work in the formal sector.

Most major trade unions are affiliated with political parties. These strong links provide unions with spokespeople in positions of power, but they have led to a fragmentation of the labor movement and often to strong competition between unions. Unions' relationships with political parties also allow extensive political influence on trade union activities.

Workers in the formal economy generally exercise their rights to bargain collectively and strike without fear of reprisal. The Trade Unions Act prohibits discrimination against employees based on union activity. However, the Essential Services Maintenance Act enables the government to ban strikes in specified industries when it is "satisfied that in the public interest it is necessary or expedient" to do so. The act also limits the right of public servants to strike.

States may place additional restrictions on union activity. In Kerala, for example, a 2002 law forbids any strike that causes a total shutdown of the workplace.

Individual cases of harassment against union members in the formal sector are frequently reported. In April 2008, five members of the Delhi State Electricity Workers' Union were dismissed after allegedly shouting slogans criticizing their employer, the Indraprastha Power Generation Company. In June 2009, a labor group reported that union members at the Madras Rubber Factory in Tamil Nadu had been harassed and discriminated against for several years.

In the informal sector, which employs 90 percent of Indian workers, union membership is far lower, and legal protections are more difficult to enforce. Employers in the informal sector frequently ignore laws against dismissal based on union activities. While there are penalties for employers who violate the law, pursuing cases in the legal system is both time-consuming and costly.

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