Deadly factory fire highlights dangers facing India's migrant workers

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of migrant workers in India are at risk from accidents like the factory fire that has killed 43 people in New Delhi, campaigners said on Monday, urging the government to clamp down on illegal sweatshops.

The blaze swept through a four-storey building in the Indian capital where workers producing school bags and toys were sleeping early on Sunday, in the capital’s deadliest fire in 20 years.

Witnesses said fire engines had struggled to access the congested lane where the building was located.

Dithhi Bhattacharya, executive director of charity Center for Workers’ Management, said it was an accident “waiting to happen”, blaming a government failure to clamp down on illegal sweatshops that employ people in slave-like conditions.

“All those who died in this fire were working at the lowest rung of a supply chain of small scale manufacturers,” she said.

“These are the migrant workers, who are regularly being pushed into the most hazardous and inhuman conditions of work. And they are supplying to a largely unmapped but big domestic market.”

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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, restaurants and manufacturing units.

Like the men killed in Sunday’s fire, many sleep where they work to save on rent, access subsidized food and work longer hours to earn more.

A senior official in the Indian labor ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the media said there were “challenges” in implementing the laws governing factories.

“Manufacturers need to understand that compliance is not optional. We need to educate people more on this,” he added.

Campaigners for workers’ rights said there was a need for more inspections and for the government to create proper support systems for factory workers facing exploitation.

“The workers literally live from hand to mouth, living, cooking and sleeping in cramped rooms in the factory,” labor rights lawyer Kumar Ravi Shankar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“There are no checks in these areas, no inspections, even though they are producing large quantities of goods sold on the streets and catering to the Indian consumer.”

Bhattacharya said the fire showed the “total failure of inspectors”.

“In the future this is going to happen more as the government brings in labor reforms that further reduce inspections,” she added.

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit