The Supreme Court on Thursday quashed the Gujarat government’s notifications granting temporary “relaxations” to employers on certain conditions related to working hours and payment of wages under the Factories Act, 1948.
The court called the notifications “an affront to the workers’ right to life and right against forced labour”.
“The ‘right to life’ guaranteed to every person under Article 21, which includes a worker, would be devoid of an equal opportunity at social and economic freedom, in the absence of just and humane conditions of work. A worker’s right to life cannot be deemed contingent on the mercy of their employer or the State. The notifications, in denying humane working conditions and overtime wages provided by law, are an affront to the workers’ right to life and right against forced labour that are secured by Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution,” a Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph ruled.
The court also invoked its powers under Article 142 to do complete justice and directed that all workmen who had worked overtime be paid overtime wages at double the ordinary rate of wages as provided under Section 59 of the Act.
The Supreme Court said it “is cognizant that the” state “aimed to ameliorate the financial exigencies that were caused due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown”.
“However, financial losses cannot be offset on the weary shoulders of the labouring worker, who provides the backbone of the economy,” it said.
The court was hearing a petition by two labour unions against the notifications issued by the Gujarat Labour and Employment Department under Section 5 of the Act on April 17, 2020, and extended on July 20, 2020.
The notifications increased daily working hours from 9 to 12 hours, and required employers to pay overtime wages at a rate proportionate to the ordinary rate of wages, instead of what was mandated by Section 59.
The state sought to justify the changes saying “the Covid-19 pandemic is a ‘public emergency’ as defined in Section 5 of the Factories Act” and said it has disturbed the “social order of the country” and caused “extreme financial exigencies”.
It also said that the “lockdown caused a slowdown in economic activities, leading to an ‘internal disturbance’ in the State within the meaning of Section 5”, and requiring urgent measures to protect its financial health.
But the bench did not agree.
It said that “even if we were to accept the…argument at its highest, that the pandemic has resulted in an internal disturbance, we find that the economic slowdown created by the Covid-19 pandemic does not qualify as an internal disturbance threatening the security of the state…Unless the threshold of an economic hardship is so extreme that it leads to disruption of public order and threatens the security of India or of a part of its territory, recourse cannot be taken to such emergency powers which are to be used sparingly under the law.”.
The court said “the Factories Act is a product of history; of a long struggle of worker unions to secure the right to human dignity in workplaces that ensure their safety and well-being” and “is meant to serve as a bulwark against harsh and oppressive working conditions”.
The Bench said it would have been fathomable if only specific industries like those producing medical equipment had been exempted. “However, a blanket notification of exemption to all factories, irrespective of the manufactured product, while denying overtime to the workers, is indicative of the intention to capitalize on the pandemic to force an already worn-down class of society, into the chains of servitude,” it said.
Pointing out that the pandemic situation was accompanied by a migrant worker crisis, the judgment said “the notifications in question legitimize the subjection of workers to onerous working conditions at a time when their feeble bargaining power stands whittled by the pandemic”.
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