affront-to-right-to-life-sc-junks-gujarat-orders-on-wages-longer-hours-of-work

Context: The Supreme Court quashed the Gujarat government’s notifications exempting factories from paying overtime wages to workers during lockdown between April 20 and July 19.

Background

  • The court was hearing a petition by two labour unions against the notifications issued by the Gujarat govt.
  • The Gujarat govt had granted temporary “relaxations” to employers on certain conditions related to working hours and payment of wages under the Factories Act, 1948.
  • The notifications increased daily working hours from 9 to 12 hours.
  • It required employers to pay overtime wages at a rate proportionate to the ordinary rate of wages, instead of what was mandated by Section 59 of the factories Act, 1948.
  • Public emergency: The Gujarat govt said that “the Covid-19 pandemic is a ‘public emergency’ as defined in Section 5 of the Factories Act” as it has disturbed the “social order of the country”.

Constitutional background

  • Labour is a subject in the Concurrent List where both the Central & State Governments are competent to enact legislation subject to certain matters being reserved for the Centre. 
  • Article 23: Traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited
  • Article 24: No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in factories, mines and other hazardous occupations.
  • Article 39 (d): “The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing; that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women
  • Article 43A directs the state to take steps to ensure workers participation in management of industries.

Supreme Court judgment

  • Workers’ right to life and right against forced labour: The notifications go against the workers’ right to life and right against forced labour that are secured by Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution.
    • 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. 
  • Covid-19 not a public emergency: The economic slowdown created by the Covid-19 pandemic does not qualify as an internal disturbance threatening the security of the state.
    • The 44th Amendment to the Constitution, which mandated that “internal disturbance” should reach the stage of “armed rebellion” threatening national security in order to declare a state of public emergency.The sharp economic decline posed no such threat.
    • The emergency powers under Article 352 of the Constitution had been only used thrice before- during the India-China war (1962), India-Pakistan war (1695) and in 1975 when the Indira Gandhi government declared emergency.
  • Complete justice under Article 142: 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 Factories Act aims to secure the right to human dignity in workplaces that ensure their safety and well-being” and serves as a bulwark against harsh and oppressive working conditions.

Factories Act 1948

  • The main objectives of the Indian Factories Act, 1948 are to regulate the working conditions in factories, to regulate health, safety welfare, and annual leave and enact special provision in respect of young persons, women and children who work in the factories.
  • It has recently been subsumed under Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Act, 2019.
  • Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Act, 2019, encompasses provisions from 13 labour laws, including the Factories Act, the Mines Act, the Dock Workers Act, the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees Act, and the Cine Workers and Cinema Theatre Workers Act.

Section 5 in The Factories Act, 1948

  • In any case of public emergency the State Government may grant an exemption to any factory from all or any of the provisions of this Act for a period not exceeding three months at a time. 
  • “Public emergency” means a grave emergency whereby the security of India or of any part of the territory thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or internal disturbance.

Image source: https://epthinktank.eu/

Q) 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. Comment. (150 words)