India Labour Solidarity - Briefing on UK-India Free Trade Agreement 

An India Labour Solidarity campaign briefing (August 2023) on the UK-India Free Trade Agreement process. Please feel free to get in touch with queries, press requests or to campaign together on this:

A PDF is provided at the bottom of page if you would like to print and use the document.

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UK-India Free Trade Agreement: Not at the expense of human rights, workers’ rights and social justice 

“A labourer not only wants equality but he needs liberty also, it is really intolerable and detrimental where system proposes equality but denies liberty. The constitution in which equilibrium, of the both is established… is the ideal constitution for the labourers.”

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891–1956), leading defender of social justice in pre- and post-independence India; economist and labour rights activist; Minister for Labour before independence and first Law and Justice Minister of independent India

“This is another example of the UK government hurtling into trade talks with a country that has a terrible record on human rights and workers’ rights. Suppressing trade unions, forced labour, child labour and other workers’ rights abuses are all widespread in India. Until the Indian government acts, the government should not entertain a UK-India deal… The UK government should be using its leverage on the global stage to promote decent work. It’s time for ministers to listen to trade unions in both the UK and India and act to stop serious rights abuses.”

Frances O’Grady, then UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary, January 2022

In October 2022 the UK TUC, along with Indian unions representing almost 50 million workers, called for negotiations on a UK-India trade deal to be suspended “until the Indian government shows respect for International Labour Organisation conventions and civil liberties”.

However, negotiations for a UK-India “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA) continue to advance. These negotiations are being conducted with little transparency and minimal opportunity for public scrutiny: one result is that we do not know the final timetable. We do know this issue will become ever more pressing. The India Labour Solidarity campaign (ILS), led by UK labour movement and social justice activists of Indian and other South Asian origins and backgrounds, is calling on the labour movement and democracy and human rights advocates to agitate and mobilise in support of suspending the FTA talks, in line with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) position. This briefing outlines why we strongly recommend this approach, starting with the significance of the FTA for the UK’s right-wing government.


1. Significance of the FTA for the UK government
2. UK-India: their solidarity and ours
3. The situation in India
4. Likely impact of the FTA
5. Demands to build solidarity
6. Further information and resources


1. Significance of the FTA for the UK government

The UK’s Conservative government has indicated it regards concluding the UK-India deal as an important “post-Brexit” priority, with trade secretary Kemi Badenoch stating it is one of her top five priorities for 2023. It will be a significant political as well as economic event, involving the UK in its first such post-Brexit agreement with a “developing world” country (to use terminology which is common but which we do not endorse).

At the same time, both the UK Conservative government and - to an even greater extent - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India are engaged in aggressive assaults on democracy, social justice and human rights, and workers’ rights specifically. Not only will the policies they promote in a major trade agreement embody and develop this assault; such an agreement will also represent a political victory and bolstering for both right-wing governments, both facing general elections in 2024.

For various reasons, including the general lack of public and democratic transparency, scrutiny and accountability in UK trade deals, there has been little serious discussion of the UK-India negotiations and possible deal, including little serious media coverage. We hope greater awareness and campaigning in the UK labour movement can help change that.

2. UK-India: their solidarity and ours

Links and solidarity between workers’ and social movements in every country are essential. However, the labour movement and activists in the UK and India have a particular need to strengthen ties today. In the first instance because the ruling dispensations and right-wing forces in the two countries have strong links, of which the FTA push is one result. They are deepening connections for their own interests; the UK labour movement must pay far greater attention to India, and build connections and solidarity for our mutual interests. While we share lessons from our struggles in the UK we can, crucially, learn from those of workers in India.

It is important to acknowledge the much longer history of connections between the UK and India, including: colonial exploitation, oppression and violence, and the impact of colonisation on India’s society, economy and polity; the connections between anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-caste movements as well as workers’ movements in the two countries; and the presence of a thriving South Asian diaspora in the UK, including sadly an increasingly influential right-wing component - moreover one which is active in the Labour Party as well as the Conservative Party.

India is, of course, now the world’s most populous country; and one whose dominant far right is a central but, in the UK, often under-considered pillar of the global far right. We argue for the UK trade union movement to fight to redirect the position of the Labour Party, to which it is heavily connected. Judged against the basic demands of solidarity and internationalism, as well as the TUC’s position, it should be a matter of alarm that Labour leader Keir Starmer has recently made a number of comments seemingly supporting uncritically the Tory-BJP FTA negotiations and attempting to appeal to Modi’s regime. This must be vigorously challenged.

Although this briefing focuses on the situation in India, it should not be taken as suggesting a perspective of charity for poor benighted people in India. We are concerned about the diminishing of rights in both countries: we see the two as connected. Either, through stronger struggles and greater international solidarity, workers can halt the long-trending but now sharpening attacks on their rights in both countries and pull living standards in India sharply upwards; or workers in countries like the UK may also be pushed gradually down and down.

We begin from grassroots solidarity; but we do also appeal to policy-makers, and particularly policy-makers who see or present themselves as part of the labour movement.

3. The situation in India

For more details, see references in the further information section at the end of this briefing

Bad as the UK’s current social and political situation is, the situation in India is worse - characterised by extreme inequality and eroding of gains made since 1947 in reparation for the extreme social injustices meted out to the country’s oppressed caste and indigenous peoples over centuries, which include severe abuse of workers’ rights and precariousness. Struggles for workers’ rights in India have a long and distinguished history, beginning with the resistance movements of indigenous peoples against the replacement of more egalitarian agrarian relations with landlord-tenant tenure systems, running through the labour struggles of mill and other workers in Mumbai and other centres in the early and mid-20th centuries, through to the mass farmers’ and farm labourers’ protests that caught the world’s attention during the Covid pandemic.

Despite these traditions, and gains they have won, India’s long-persisting paradigm of caste-based and heavily coerced labour and degraded work conditions, along with the historical impoverishment of the country by British colonialism, have meant that the basic level of living standards and social rights in India has remained low. 81% earn less than the £4.70 equivalent poverty line a day. Moreover since 2014, India has been under the grip of the authoritarian far-right BJP, the political organ of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation, RSS) militia, whose founders were inspired by the 20th-century European fascist movements.

The regime and the movement it is based on have vigorously fostered communal division, with increasingly widespread persecution of Muslim and Christian communities, including the severe ongoing violence in the north-eastern state of Manipur. At the same time, the regime has been vigorously deepening and accelerating the neoliberal capitalist agenda that was initiated in the 1990s: laws are being amended and replaced at speed, and ordinances are being introduced without parliamentary debate to ensure “ease of doing business” for the country’s top few billionaire-owned enterprises, trampling over any regard for workers or social justice more broadly. These include the much contested “farm laws” against which the farmers’ movement rose up and new anti-worker/anti-union and pro-employer Labour Codes, along with the relaxing of other social and environmental standards.

The International Trade Union Confederation has long placed India in its lowest category for workers’ rights, above only nine countries in which the rule of law has broken down decisively due to civil war or similar. This is because India’s economy is based on severe exploitation of a huge mass of workers with very few rights. These workers largely comprise people from the oppressed castes such as the Dalits (historically known as “untouchables”); the Adivasi and other indigenous tribal peoples; religious minorities including Muslims; and women.

The importance of these forms of oppression, including in labour exploitation, cannot be overstated. India’s workforce is 90% “informal”, without any contract of employment, much lower pay than “formal” sector workers, and virtually none of the rights that in the UK are associated even with insecure forms of employment. Vast numbers of people, including family members numbering in hundreds of millions, are engaged in seasonal migrant labour, moving continually around the country. In many cases, these workers are effectively denied even basic citizenship rights. Many others are working in the “gig” economy due to lack of stable formal jobs. The Indian government has been celebrating this turn to “platformisation” as contributing to India’s economic growth; critics have called it “a deliberate attempt” to obfuscate “the erosion of workers’ rights, security, and welfare”, against which the workers themselves have been striking across the industry. For the informal workforce, slum housing is for the lucky; many live in labour camps run by employers.

Child labour and bonded (semi-forced) labour are common, including in textiles, silk, brick manufacturing and shipbreaking.

Labour in agriculture, still a central part of India’s economy, is done by a mass of small farmers - many of whom also work part of their time as wage labourers, including in other sectors - and landless agricultural labourers, most of the latter coming from the oppressed groups mentioned above.

Women are heavily concentrated in sectors with low wages and few rights; perhaps 80% of the very low proportion of Indian women economically active are in agriculture, as against 40% of men. Women account for over 40% of agricultural labour but own less than 2% of farmland. Women workers are particularly highly represented in sectors that are particularly at risk from increased liberalisation under a free trade agreement, including in dairy farming and textiles.

The UK consistently violates certain International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions it has formally ratified; India has not even ratified two key ILO conventions, 87 (Freedom of Association and Protect of the Right to Organise) and 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining).

Currently, even existing employment schemes that provided some protections for labourers, such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee  (MNREGA) are being systematically shrunk. People have responded by standing up against the erosion of their constitutional rights, as is clear by the severity of repression: for instance the fact that over 70% of prisoners in India’s massively over-crowded prisons are “under-trials”, i.e. pre-trial detainees. These include labour activists and other social justice defenders such as public intellectuals, artists, academics and students (e.g. the Bhima Koregaon 16). Those seeking to organise informal workers face particularly harsh repression.

In 2023 the Reporters Without Borders "World Press Freedom Index" ranked India 161 out of 180 countries for press freedom - down 11 places even from 2022. News of much dissent is repressed, but protests on the scale of the 2020-21 farmers’ movement could not be hidden from the world.

Even under these circumstances, India’s workers’ and social movements are still waging numerous inspiring struggles: not just the 2020-21 farmers’ movement but repeated general protest strikes and industrial disputes, oppressed-caste struggles for civil rights and for land, indigenous peoples  struggles to preserve their land, resources and sustainable ways of living, and women’s struggle for freedom against patriarchal oppression and violence. Just as we prepared to publish this briefing, gig workers’ unions won the passage of a ground-breaking law in Rajasthan (very significantly, a state not run by the BJP) establishing basic social security measures for their members. Our siblings in India are fighting heroically, and we must stand in solidarity with them.

Finally, the far-right movement now dominating India, with extensive power in society as well as over the government, organises globally too, including in the UK.

4. Likely impact of the FTA

Under the current circumstances a trade deal is not likely to improve prospects for people in India or in the UK on at least two counts:

Firstly, it will bolster the oppressive right-wing BJP regime (in alliance with the right-wing regime in the UK). We are not arguing for breaking off trade and economic connections with India; but this special agreement is as much a political as an economic project.

Secondly, even if the FTA does generate economic growth, this growth will not necessarily benefit workers, the poor and oppressed groups. To illustrate this point, from the turn of the century, economic growth in India has not even necessarily created low-paid, no-rights jobs but overall been “jobless” and from about 2015 “job-loss”.

Since India’s turn to neoliberalism in the early 1990s, the country has experienced high growth rates, typically 5-9% a year. But the fruits of this growth have been very unevenly distributed, with sharply rising inequality. Between 1980 and today, according to the World Inequality Report 2022, the income share going from the top 10% of the population in India rose from not much more than 30% to close to 60%; the bottom 50% declined from over 20% to under 15%. Oxfam India states that 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the top 1%, while the bottom 50% saw just a 1% increase in their wealth. Public services including health and education have been systematically eroded.

This FTA will further encourage and enable the Indian and UK governments to remain on their present sharply neoliberal, anti-worker, anti-social path. Additionally to these general considerations, the UK TUC’s August 2021 submission to the UK Department of International Trade, which preceded its call for the negotiations to be suspended, set out a number of specific areas of alarm around the impact of an FTA, including:

• The removal of economic tariffs being used to move work around in ways that undermine employment with relatively strong rights in both India and the UK;
• The likely disproportionate impact on Indian women of any further undermining of employment opportunities and workers’ rights in India. We also highlight that people from oppressed castes and indigenous communities, religious minorities and other groups facing discrimination are all less likely to be employed in relatively good jobs, and to be the first driven out the door if these jobs are undermined;
• The undermining of India’s food security and agricultural employment (again disproportionately affecting women and oppressed castes and communities) through the removal of tariffs on agriculture;

• Liberalisation in trade in services that could lock in privatisation and outsourcing and restrict the ability of governments in both countries to regulate and improve, or even nationalise, services (which again disproportionately disadvantaging women and other oppressed groups);

• Clauses on mobility proposing to operate not on the basis of free movement of people/labour between countries, but movement tied to work for particular employers, facilitating undermining of union-negotiated agreements and labour standards in general, and the super-exploitation of migrant workers.

Trade Justice Movement (TJM), with which ILS is partnering on this campaign, has also produced a detailed report on the potential FTA (October 2022), meticulously exploring the issues in the UK and India and the likely impact of a deal on: human rights; sustainable development goals; labour rights; climate change and environmental protections; gender equality; health; and agriculture. TJM’s conclusion is also a call for the negotiations to be suspended until the situation in both countries is radically improved.

5. Demands to build solidarity 

Both the TUC submission to the DIT and TJM’s report on the FTA set out a range of criteria and goals against which any UK-India trade deal should be measured; the TJM report includes a range of possible mechanisms by which such goals could be pursued and enforced. (In the TUC document see p6; in TJM report, throughout, summarised from p42.) 

The lack of mechanisms for serious scrutiny and accountability in UK trade deals and potential ways of addressing this problem has been raised in Parliament and the TJM report also highlights this issue. Activists in India have raised even greater problems there in this regard.

We therefore push for the whole UK labour movement, and the UK Labour Party, to call for the suspension of talks; refuse to give backing to a Tory-BJP deal and call for its cancellation; and put forward radically different, pro-worker and -people criteria around which any alternative negotiations should be shaped.

As part of that, we call for any future economic relationships between the two countries to be guided by the Ambedkar Principles, developed by the International Dalit Solidarity Network. By following these principles, we can ensure the just and equitable inclusion of not only Dalits but also other marginalised and oppressed groups in any economic progress in both countries.

Further information and resources

In addition to the links in the text above, please see:

Is India still a democracy? (July 2023)

International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index (2021)

UK TUC submission to UK Department of International Trade (August 2021)

Joint statement from the TUC and Indian unions (October 2022)

“Why both countries must put development first” – detailed Trade Justice Movement report on the FTA (October 2022)

“Survival of the Richest: The India Story” – report from Oxfam India (January 2023)


India Labour Solidarity

After starting activity at the autumn 2022 TUC Congress and Labour Party conference, India Labour Solidarity (ILS) was formally launched on 6 December 2022 at a public meeting in London – with speakers including Indian trade unionists Nodeep Kaur and Bilal Khan, UK TUC President Maria Exall and Nadia Whittome MP. ILS supports workers’ and other struggles for people’s rights in India; we promote links and solidarity between India’s workers’ and social justice movements and the UK trade union, labour and social justice movements.

This briefing was put together collectively by India Labour Solidarity activists, including Santosh Dass, Sacha Ismail, Lotika Singha, Mihika Chatterjee, Lekh Pall and Praveen Kolluguri. Thanks also to Professor Jens Lerche at SOAS, Dr Maha Atal at University of Glasgow, and Leo Verity and George Holt of Trade Justice Movement for suggestions.


India Labour Solidarity - Briefing on UK-India Free Trade Agreement FINAL (3).pdf