Labour Movement In India


In a globalized world, it is important to protect the interests of workers along with that of industrialists. A trade union is an organized association of workers in a trade or in a profession that is formed to form and strengthen their rights and interests. It was a global movement. The rise and development of trade unionism have been an unavoidable factor in industrialization. In India, it is registered under the Trade Unions Act, 1926. They work for the economic and social welfare of the workers and may also have political interests in society. India currently has more than sixteen thousand trade unions with about ten million labour memberships.

The emergence of the Labour movement

In the 1850s, India witnessed the creation of textile and jute mills and the laying of railways. This is where the labour issues started to come out. In the year 1875, the first labour commission occurred in Bombay, under the leadership of S. S. Bengalee. This resulted in the appointment of the first Factory Commission in the year 1875 and later, the Factories Act was passed in the year 1881. The union started by M. N. Lokhande, known as the Bombay Mill Hands Association, was the first organized labour union in India.

In this period, social activists and philanthropists were the leaders of these unions and not the workers themselves. The Labour Movement In India was focused on the welfare of the workers rather than advocating their rights. Although they were organized, it wasn’t widespread all over India. Their requests and demands were mainly about the livelihood of women and child workers.

New unions like the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in India and the Printers Union of India were formed which mainly focused on the living conditions of the workers and spreading literacy amongst them. The Labour Movement In India was for the workers and not by the workers.

Early Trade Union Era

The period from 1918 to 1924 is marked to be the early trade union era which is the actual start of the Labour Movement In India. The pathetic living conditions caused by the First World War and the discovery of the outside world led to the understanding of class consciousness amongst the working class which led to tremendous growth in the movement. Unions like the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) / the Communist Party of India (the oldest trade union federation of India), the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (led by Ansuyaben Sarabhai), the All India Postal Association, the Madras Labour Association (led by B. P. Wadia) are some of the notable ones of this era. The establishment of Home Rule, the development of Gandhian leadership, the martial law in Punjab and other socio-political situations were also factors to the movement. Russian Revolution and other international events like the creation of the International Labour Organization added fuel to the movement. India was one of the founding members of the organisation. N. M. Joshi was recruited as a representative of India to ILO’s conferences and sessions. This made the workers understand the need to organize, resulting in the creation of the All India Trade Union Congress in the year 1920.

Left-Wing Trade Unionism

The period from 1925 to 1934 was the period that marked a rise in revolutionary approach and witnessed many split-ups. The AITUC split up resulting in the creation of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and the All India Red Trade Union Congress (AIRTUC). AIRTUC was led by S. V. Deshpande and B. T. Randive. The moderate section was led by N. M. Joshi. The National Trade Unions Federation was created from the Congress party which was led by V. V. Giri. The State was favourable to the trade union movement. Acts like the Trade Union Act, 1926, which dealt with the rights and privileges of the registered unions, and the Trade Disputes Act, 1929, which dealt with the settlement of trade unions, were stimuli to the development of the Labour Movement In India. This era gave a major influence on the left-wing.

Discontinuity in Congress

There was great unity among unions from 1935 to 1938. Indian National Congress, INC,  was the authority in seven territories which led to the formation of multiple unions and more involvement in the nationalist movement. AIRTUC was again a part of AITUC. The method adopted by Congress was the promotion of worker interests along with maintaining industrial peace. Many ministers opposed strikes as a law and order issue and used colonial methods to suppress them which worsened the resentment of the unions. The Bombay Industrial Disputes Act[1] was passed in the year 1938 which dealt with the compulsory recognition of unions by the employers which was the main boost to the growth of Indian trade unionism.

The Labour Activism

Post the Second World War, the situation of workers was much worse due to the spiralling rise in prices, unemployment and the scenario demanded to strengthen the movement. This led to a hike in membership in trade unions from 667 to 1087 in a span of merely six years. The Congress and the Communists had differences of opinion on multiple topics which resulted in a split in the movement. The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946[2] and the Bombay Industrial Relations Act, 1946[3] were two major factors in strengthening the labour movement, i.e., it attained national recognition.

Post-Independence Labour Movement in India

After the withdrawal of the East India Company from India, there was a huge increase in the formation of unions and major unions had affiliation with political parties. Sardar Vallabhai Patel formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress in May 1947, making AITUC a Communist-dominated union. The Hind Mazdoor Sabha (Samajwadi Party) was created in 1948 under the Praja Socialist Party. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (Bharatiya Janata Party) was formed by Dattopant Thengadi.

The rise of regional parties led to the rise of unions since all parties wanted a trade union of their own. Different unions came together to address common demands and issues, like the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982. Post-liberalisation, in the year 1991, strikes as such received less public support mainly due to disorganised labour.

Currently, there are eight central trade unions including the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and others (CITU).

Issues in the labour movement

1. Although there was a rise in the memberships of trade unions, the vast group of workers were reluctant to be a part of any unions. This reduced the united bargaining power which could have been useful while bringing up demands and issues. They were outnumbered and hence were lightly powerless while compared to the opposition. They lacked public support as well, as they were considered to bring down development.

2. The main disadvantage was the weak financial position. According to the Trade Union Act, 1926, the membership fee was set extremely low. Their main opponents, majorly corporate companies, had great capital which is incomparable to the situation of these unions which is majorly comprised of minimum wage workers and daily wage workers.

3. There was no uniform development. It was focused mainly on metropolitan areas and on organized sectors. In the rural areas, low-scale labour was majorly left out and underrepresented.

4. The unions were mainly headed by politicians whose political agendas were far more prioritized rather than the needs of the workers. There was a huge rise in unions, which led to the further multiplication of the attention required. The unions had no clear demarcation based on different labour. As more political parties and unions were formed, more conflict of interests was formed.

5. The unions were not to be given recognition by the workers and were sidelined.

Notable Legislation

1. The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923[4]

The Act dealt with providing and helping access their compensations to those workers in case they had any accidents in course of their employment. It discussed multiple situations of partial and total disablement and the tortious liability of the employer. The Act was passed while the Company was still in power for improving the living conditions of the workers, i.e., the major Indian population. But the authenticity of the Act was nearly nothing as it was just an excuse to prevent the increasing momentum of the ongoing movement.

2. The Payment of Wages Act, 1936[5]

The Act dealt with the regularity in salary payment and wage composition by providing for the fee and other approved deductions in many scenarios. It wanted to eradicate wage-related corruptions and malpractices by laying down the wage periods and time and checking undue deductions from wages.

3. Trade Unions Act, 1926 [6]

This Act ensured the participation of workers in the management and decision-making areas. It also looked after hikes in salary at periodic intervals, bonuses, and other incentives. It laid down the foundation of cooperative legislation.

4. The Minimum Wages Act, 1948 [7]

The Act aimed at fixing minimum rates of wages and thereby preventing exploitation of workmen. The provisions of the Act are intended to achieve social justice to workmen by prescribing minimum rates of wages.








This article has been written by Nithyakalyani Narayanan. V, 2nd Year BA LLB(H) student at Amity Law School, Noida

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