By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Six migrant workers who had been locked inside a bakery by their employer in western India suffocated to death in a fire, triggering calls for decades-old labor laws to be implemented to crack down on worker exploitation and abuse.
A short circuit caused a fire in a bakery in Pune in western Maharashtra state last Friday when the workers were asleep on the mezzanine floor where they also baked cakes and cookies.
They were unable to escape as the bakery owner had locked the shutter door from outside to prevent theft. When firemen broke into the bakery, they found the workers' bodies on the mezzanine floor.
The workers died of suffocation and burns, officials said.
"When such cases occur, the law enforcement agencies look at the more obvious crime and ignore other sections" of the law, said Chandan Kumar, a core group member on bonded labor with the National Human Rights Commission.
The employer was arrested and charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, keeping the workers locked up, constructing an illegal mezzanine where the workers lived and worked, and operating the bakery without government approval.
Activists say the employer should also have been charged with violating labor laws.
More than 90 percent of India's workforce - an estimated 400 million people - are in informal employment. This includes laborers on farms and construction sites, as well as in shops, hotels and restaurants.
Many work in conditions that violate Indian laws enacted decades ago to protect labor rights.
One law that is not enforced requires migrant workers' data to be recorded in their home state and their destination of employment, said Umi Daniel, South Asia regional head of the non-governmental organisation Aide et Action International.
"It is important to record this data as it would not only enumerate migrant workers from each state, but also identify where they are working and help in better regulation of their work conditions," Daniel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In the Pune bakery fire, neither the employer nor the government had home addresses of the six workers who had migrated from northern Uttar Pradesh state.
Police inspector Varsharani Patil said their relatives working in bakeries nearby helped contact their families back home.
Officials said bonded labor laws were not applicable in the case because the workers chose to live in the bakery to save money.
Experts called for improved understanding of bonded labor.
"Any person working on nominal wages is forced labor, and that is bonded labor," said Nirmal Gorana who heads a national campaign to end bonded labor.
Experts say an Indian law to protect minimum wage and ensure compensation to families in the event of a worker's death on the job also is not implemented.
"We are not remotely close to implementing this law. There is no mechanism to cater to the informal sector," said Kumar, of the National Human Rights Commission.
India is home to an estimated 16 million of the world's 36 million slaves, according to the Walk Free Foundation, an Australia-based human rights group.
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)