Section 374 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 discusses ‘unlawful compulsory labour’ which means forcing somebody unlawfully to work and against their will. Forced labour refers to situations in which individuals are coerced to work by the use of violence or intimidation, or through other means such as repayment of the debt, retention of important documents or threats to illegal immigrants of denunciation to immigration authorities. A person who engages in such an unlawful act will be punished with imprisonment for a period which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
The victim may be a man or a woman of any age because the intention of this legal provision is to check forced labour. The main ingredients of section 374 are as follows:-
- There must be a compulsion for labour by one person on another.
- The compulsion caused must be unlawful.
Begar or Forced Labor
Section 374 is intended to check the practice of forced labour in accordance with Article 23 of the Indian Constitution, thereby prohibiting forced labour or ‘begar’ in human beings. ‘Begar’ means labour or service which a person is forced to give without receiving any remuneration for it or the remuneration received is less than the minimum prescribed value.
Article 23 provides for prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour. Begar and any form of traffic in human beings or any other similar form of forced labour are prohibited, and violation of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law. Nevertheless, the State has the power to impose compulsory service for a public purpose, but it has to make sure that no discrimination is made on the grounds of religion, race, caste or class or any of them. The kind of force which makes forced labour may arise in several ways:
(i) It can be in the form of physical force which is enough to compel a person to provide labour or service to another;
(ii) The force may be exerted through a legal provision such as a provision for imprisonment or fine in case the employee fails to provide labour or service;
(iii) It may even be compulsion arising due to a basic human need like hunger and poverty.
Any factor which deprives a person of the choice of alternatives available and compels him to adopt one particular course of action which he would not have in normal circumstances may properly be regarded as force, and if a person is compelled as a result of such force, it would be forced labour.
Labour authorised by Law
When compulsory labour is authorised by law, the compulsion will be lawful. The Supreme Court has held this view in its judgments and has said that a prisoner sentenced to rigorous imprisonment cannot complain that the jail authorities committed the offence of unlawful compulsory labour under Section 374 of Indian Penal Code by compelling him to do work during the term of his imprisonment. The exception is that hard labour cannot be imposed on prisoners undergoing simple imprisonment, on under-trial internees, and on those who have been kept in prison for the purpose of preventive measures.
Nature of Offence under Section 374
Offences under Section 374 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 are Cognizable, Bailable and Triable by any Magistrate. A cognizable offence means that a police officer has the authority to arrest the accused without a warrant and to start an investigation themselves with or without the permission of a court. Otherwise, the police personnel in non-cognizable offences do not have the authority to arrest the accused without a warrant, and an investigation cannot be initiated without a prior court order.
An offence is bailable when the police have the authority to release the accused on bail on getting the defined surety amount along with a duly filled bail bond at the concerned police station. The otherwise arrested person has to apply for bail before a magistrate or court after he is presented before them. Offences under Section 374 are triable by any Magistrate means that there is no bar on the jurisdiction of different classes of Magistrates; the matter can be taken up by any Magistrate without and jurisdictional issues.
The underlying principle behind Section 374 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is that no man can be unlawfully forced to labour against his will. The Constitution, along with Indian Penal Code, 1860 ensures that rights of all citizens are protected and no discrimination happens. In India, this is a common scenario that several generations are forced to work under bondage and continue so even if the object of such forced labour is fulfilled because people are not aware of their rights. Therefore, there needs to be a proper implementation of the law.