Revamping India’s Labour Laws for Job Growth and Formal Employment

India’s labour laws, largely relics of a bygone era, need significant reforms to foster job creation and enhance formal employment. These laws, written for a vastly different economic landscape, fail to align with the modern workforce’s needs. They assume lifetime employment, overlook the cost-to-company concept, and assume benefits are additional to salaries. Moreover, these laws presume stable business cycles and fixed-cost employee management, while trade unions, representing only 5% of the workforce, are seen as the primary voice of labour. To address these outdated assumptions, reforms are necessary in four key areas: employment contracts, benefits regimes, complexity, and trade union laws.

Employment Contracts: Flexibility and Balance

Current employment contracts in India resemble a marriage without the possibility of divorce. Once an employee is hired, dismissing them is exceptionally challenging. This rigidity contributes to the prevalence of informal employment (90%) and contract employment (29%), both of which are outliers by global standards. Introducing more balanced employment contracts that recognize fixed-term agreements and allow employers to treat employee costs as variable expenses could significantly boost formal employment. Such flexibility would make it easier for employers to hire formally, knowing they have the option to adjust workforce size as needed.

Benefits Regime: Reducing Burden on Low-Wage Employees

India’s benefits regime is among the most regressive globally. In a cost-to-company framework, employers must allocate nearly half the salary of low-wage employees to benefits. This confiscatory approach discourages low-income workers from participating in the formal sector. To encourage formal employment, the benefits regime needs an overhaul to reduce the financial burden on both employers and employees. Allowing employees to have greater control over their earnings and savings would make formal jobs more attractive and feasible for those at the lower end of the income spectrum.

Simplifying Complexity: Harmonizing and Simplifying Labour Laws

India has over 100 labour laws, many of which have contradictory definitions and scopes. The concurrent nature of labour laws, requiring agreement between central and state governments, often leads to discrepancies in how laws are written, interpreted, and enforced. This complexity provides opportunities for labour inspectors to exploit ambiguities for personal gain. Simplifying and harmonizing these laws would reduce compliance burdens and make it easier for businesses to operate within the formal sector. Streamlining regulations to create a more straightforward and transparent legal framework is crucial for improving job creation.

Trade Union Laws: De-Politicizing and Modernizing Representation

Trade unions in India are heavily politicized, with a significant presence of professional politicians, creating a toxic environment that hinders genuine representation of worker interests. To foster a healthier labour market, it is essential to reduce the influence of outsiders and politicians in trade unions. Encouraging the emergence of unions that truly represent the workforce’s interests, without external political agendas, would help in negotiating fairer labour practices and enhancing worker protections.

Political Sensitivities and Path to Reform

Labour reforms in India face significant political challenges. The concentrated costs and dispersed benefits of such reforms create difficult political optics. Mancur Olson’s theory of “distributional coalitions” explains how small, organized groups can capture the agenda in a democracy, often hindering broad-based reforms. Despite these challenges, job preservation through outdated laws does not equate to job creation.

Breaking labour reforms into two phases—plumbing and philosophy—could make the process more manageable. Plumbing reforms, which include fixing the benefits regime, harmonizing laws, and simplifying compliance, are relatively non-controversial and can be a starting point. These initial steps can help build consensus around more challenging philosophical reforms.

Learning from International Examples

The labour reforms undertaken by countries like Spain, France, and Germany during economic crises demonstrate that substantial changes are possible under pressure. India’s demographic dividend could serve as a similar impetus for reform. One potential solution is to make labour laws a state subject, allowing the 28 chief ministers to craft policies tailored to their regions’ unique needs. This decentralized approach could foster innovation and competition among states, leading to more effective job creation strategies.


Reforming India’s labour market is crucial for improving job creation and expanding formal employment. By addressing the rigidity in employment contracts, reducing the burden of the benefits regime, simplifying complex laws, and modernizing trade union representation, India can create a more dynamic and inclusive labour market. Despite the political challenges, phased reforms focusing initially on less controversial areas can pave the way for broader changes, ensuring India’s workforce is well-positioned for the future.


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