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Legal Restrictions and Enforcement

The domestic legal treatment of individual labor rights, which are clearly articulated but seldom enforced, reflects India’s blurry history with slavery. Article 23 of the 1949 Constitution of India outlaws both the trafficking of human beings and forced labor, but the legislation defining and banning bonded labor was only approved by Parliament in 1976. The Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1976 stipulates that the monitoring of labor violations and their enforcement are responsibilities of state governments. The Indian government has demonstrated a severe lack of will to implement this ban on bonded labor. Such pervasive non-enforcement may be attributed to several factors, including government apathy, caste bias, corruption, a lack of accountability, and inadequate enforcement personnel. The Supreme Court of India has interpreted bonded labor as the payment of wages that are below the prevailing market wage or the legal minimum wage. As a response to complaints of human rights violations, the Court relies on Public Interest Law (PIL) whereby citizens are able to petition India’s courts if they believe their rights, or the rights of their fellow citizens, are being denied. The Supreme Court’s two major examinations of child labor in 1991 and 1997 resulted in PIL rulings that emphasized the role of poverty, and promoted children’s education. However, the Court refused to ban child labor outright, citing its role as a judicial and not a legislative body. The Indian government has not yet actively linked economic development to human rights violations at work. A recent government measure to raise the minimum wage for children exemplifies a lagging commitment to the eradication of child labor in particular, by essentially legitimizing children’s work obligations and conditions. Nevertheless, the decision of the Supreme Court to establish a rehabilitation and welfare program for working children, in addition to the efforts of the National Human Rights Commission, have been instrumental in sensitizing policymakers to the serious problem of child labor.