Video of a worker being beaten to death highlights a labor abuse crisis in India

An Indian laborer at work in Allahabad on Oct. 1, 2013.
Sanjay Kanojia

NEW DELHI, India — India’s latest viral video is hard to watch. It shows a man strung up by his hands and feet while other men beat him with what appears to be an iron rod. Onlookers watch the attack and shout abuse. Some laugh. One of them stood and filmed it for over half an hour. 

The victim, identified as a factory worker named Ram Singh, died of his injuries. According to his wife, his body was found dumped on the road. His employer, a factory owner in Amritsar in the northwest state of Punjab, is accused of ordering the attack because he suspected Singh of stealing. 

Watch an edited excerpt from the video below. Warning: the footage is disturbing. 


After clips from the video were shared widely on Twitter and Facebook, the media reached out to the state department for comment. The response it gave was shocking — and emblematic of India’s larger problem of labor rights. The department had no knowledge of the incident.

Video evidence of such an assault is rare but, unfortunately, blatant disregard for the life of laborers and low-income workers is common. 

India has some of the world’s strictest and most complex laws governing organized labor. Some workers’ rights are enshrined in the constitution and the country has ratified 45 International Labor Organization conventions (though only four of the eight considered fundamental by the ILO). Yet while workers have protection on paper, enforcement is critically lacking. 

Take domestic workers. They are a luxury in the US but the norm in middle- and upper-class Indian homes, even a “necessity.” India’s rural to urban migrants looking for jobs in the city often end up in household labor, where they have little protection under current employment law. Yet earlier this year the government confirmed that it would not ratify the ILO’s convention on domestic workers. A national policy is being considered, but has not yet been passed.

What scant guarantees do exist — some laws promise health insurance and protection from sexual harassment, and some states prescribe minimum wages — are barely enforced. One study this year found that while working at three or four households every day, on average domestic workers earned less than $70 a month. Scandalous cases of exploitation, violence and sexual assaults on female employees repeatedly make the headlines. 

"When we can't meet the targets, the abuse starts. There is too much pressure; it is like torture. We can't take breaks or drink water or go to the toilet."

To make matters worse, some of these workers are children. India recently tightened its law on child labor to ban all work for children under 18 — but introduced an exception for “family” trades deemed non-hazardous, which can now employ children younger than 14. The latest census in 2011 found 4.35 million child laborers between the ages of 5 and 14. They continue to work in farms, homes, on the streets and in illegal sweatshops.

Sweatshops manufacturing clothing for major retailers provide Indians of all ages with yet more unregulated and abusive jobs. In 2012, a human rights tribunal documented “grave and systematic violations of individual and collective human rights” at garment factories in the southern city of Bengaluru. 

“The targets are too high. They want 150 pieces an hour. When we can’t meet the targets, the abuse starts,” one worker testified. “There is too much pressure; it is like torture. We can’t take breaks or drink water or go to the toilet. The supervisors are on our backs all the time. 

“They call us donkey, owl, dog and insult us… make us stand in front of everyone, tell us to go and die.”

The workers manufactured clothes for companies that count major Western brands including H&M, Gap and Walmart among their clients. The retailers denied knowledge of illegal practices by their suppliers.

NGOs like the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which organized the Bengaluru tribunal, are working to document the exploitation of workers in the garment, manufacturing, construction and plantation industries. The most shocking cases, like the one caught on video in Punjab, make news stories — but rarely set agendas.

Without unions or an organized political voice, workers and their rights continue to be dismissed by those in power. Meanwhile rampant abuse continues, unhampered, in every low-paying industry in India.