The Supreme Court in a significant judgment on Thursday quashed notifications issued by the Gujarat Government exempting adult workers from various provisions relating to weekly hours, daily hours, intervals for rest, etc. on grounds of ‘public emergency’ caused by the Covid-19 induced.
It also directed that overtime wages be paid to all eligible workers who have been working since the notifications were issued.
A three-judge bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph was ruling on a plea filed by Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha- a registered trade union, challenging the notifications.
A workers’ 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”, the bench said.
It added that unless the threshold of economic hardship is so extreme that it leads to a disruption of public order and threatens the security of India or of a part of its territory, the state cannot take recourse to such emergency powers which are to be used sparingly under the law.
The economic slowdown created by the COVID-19 pandemic did not qualify as an internal disturbance threatening the security of the state, it asserted.
“The pandemic has put a severe burden on existing, particularly public health, infrastructure and has led to a sharp decline in economic activities. The Union Government has taken recourse to the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.12 However, it has not affected the security of India, or of a part of its territory in a manner that disturbs the peace and integrity of the country. The economic hardships caused by COVID–19 certainly pose unprecedented challenges to governance”, the bench said.
The Court also took note of the fact that the notification made significant departures from the mandate of the Factories Act. They (i) increase the daily limit of working hours from 9 hours to 12 hours; (ii) increase the weekly work limit from 48 hours to 72 years, which translates into 12 hour work-days, 6 days a week; (iii) negate the spread over of time at work including rest hours, which is typically fixed at 10.5 hours; (iv) enable an interval of rest every 6 hours, as opposed to 5 hours; and (iv) mandate the payment of overtime wages at a rate proportionate to the ordinary rate of wages, instead of overtime wages at the rate of double the ordinary rate of wages as provided under Section 59.
It observed that the need for protecting labour welfare on the one hand and combating a public health crisis occasioned by the pandemic on the other may require careful balances. But these balances must accord with the rule of law.
“A statutory provision which conditions the grant of an exemption on stipulated conditions must be scrupulously observed. It cannot be interpreted to provide a free reign for the State to eliminate provisions promoting dignity and equity in the workplace in the face of novel challenges to the state administration, unless they bear an immediate nexus to ensuring the security of the State against the gravest of threats”, the Court ruled.
Senior advocate Sanjay Singhvi along with advocate Aparna Bhat appeared for the petitioners.
Speaking to The Leaflet, advocate Sanjoy Ghose said “the Supreme Court has emphatically pronounced that while the financial exigencies caused due to the pandemic needed amelioration, such burden cannot be offset on the “weary shoulders of the laboring worker”! He added it is a long-overdue balm to the toiling labour which has long been orphaned by society and constitutional structures put in place with the hope that they would stand for their protection.
The judgment, Ghose said, also throws important light on the extent to which “COVID emergency” can come to the aide of the State to methodically dismantle the hard-fought rights of her citizens.
Ghose has been involved in numerous labour rights matters and has argued on the side of labourers.