The coronavirus pandemic has seen a steep rise in unemployment, majorly unskilled labourers, by virtue of having affected industries. The falling economy and massive human distress makes it even more necessary for the government to assist the labourers and secure their right to wage. The author navigates this question and answers how the pandemic is an opportunity to build a strong relationship between workers and industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fragile threads holding together the way labour and industries function within the country. The relationship between workmen and management are notoriously lopsided in the manner in which the latter can wield power over the former. While it is indisputable that production of goods cannot be done without labour, industrialists are the ones vested with all the bargaining power in any interaction with workers, often leading to exploitative and inhumane working conditions for workers.
This may have always been the case, but the pandemic has created situations where mid to senior level employees, who are generally treated on a better footing than workmen, have also been subjected to ruthless pay cuts, job terminations and working hours. What makes these developments particularly egregious is that they occurred while the Government had seemingly enacted various legal measures “to protect” workers and employees during the lockdown. However, businesses both large and small have been able to flout these farcical measures with little or no consequence.
In the first portion of the lockdown, the directives of the Central and State Government focused on restricting the movement of persons, including workers. The Ministry of Home Affairs mandated that employees and workers had to be paid 100% of their salaries for the duration of the lockdown vide an order dated 29.03.2020 passed under Section 10(2)(l) of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. Several States, including Maharashtra, passed similar directions in Government Resolutions.
Countries with far smaller economies than India have rushed to assist their impoverished citizens.
In this phase of the lockdown, employees and workers were to be deemed to have attended work, even if physically absent during the lockdown. However, by April 15th 2020, the second phase of the lockdown commenced and the Ministry of Home Affairs started increasing the number of industries that could remain operational during the lockdown.
The Central and State Governments also issued a slew of directives in the form of Standard Operating Procedures (“SOPs”) mandating employers, whose industrial units could resume during the second phase of the lockdown, to provide transportation for the employees to and from work, medical insurance, and to identify Hospitals/clinics in the nearby areas, which are authorized to treat COVID-19 patients. However, these directives of the Central and State Governments to protect the interests of the workers were blatantly ignored by small and big industries alike.
The only respite to workers’ collectives came from High Courts across the country. For example, India Steels, a notable steel manufacturer in Khopoli of Maharashtra, was granted permission to remain operational during the lockdown, but failed to make necessary arrangements for transportation of their workers. The Company then tried to pass off the inability of workers to arrive for duty, in the absence of public transportation, as an illegal strike undertaken by the workers. This allegation enabled the company to avoid paying salaries to the workers. Upon approaching the Bombay High Court, a Trade Union of the workers of the company managed to secure interim relief. The Court directed the company to pay wages as it had failed to provide transportation and medical insurance to the workers.
In another matter before the Bombay High Court, the Court directed Premier Limited, the manufacturers of the iconic Premier Padmini car, to pay workers 50% of their unpaid wages. This is to continue until such time when an Industrial Dispute between the workers and the management is finally resolved through litigation pending before the Industrial Court.
The court analysed the order of the Ministry of Home Affairs dated 29.03.2020, and the Government Resolution of the State of Maharashtra dated 31.03.2020 which reiterate that workers and employees were to be paid 100% of their salaries for the duration of the lockdown. The Court noted that for the duration of the lockdown, the “no work no pay” principle could not be invoked, and that workers on duty at the time of the commencement of the lockdown were entitled to the payment of their wages for the duration of the lockdown.
The only respite to workers’ collectives came from High Courts across the country.
While other High Courts also passed similar orders enforcing these Central Government directions for full payment of salaries and wages during the lockdown, the Central Government did little to defend its own orders when it was challenged before the Supreme Court. The Central Government was quick to clarify that no business or its key managerial personnel had been prosecuted under the Act for default of these orders. The Supreme Court eventually declined to interfere in the matter. It instead passed orders encouraging individual businesses to negotiate with their workers on the quantum of salaries in compliance with the procedure stipulated under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.
The reluctance of the Central Government in defending its own orders is most peculiar. Greater efforts could have been made by the Government at the very beginning of the lockdown to offer interest-free loans to businesses to pay wages to their staff and workmen. Additionally, adequate cash benefits could have directly been provided to poor, unregistered workers in the informal sector.
The reluctance of the Central Government in defending its own orders is most peculiar.
Countries with far smaller economies than India have rushed to assist their impoverished citizens. Bangladesh offered cash benefits to workers to the tune of $ 8.5 billion. $2.5 billion dollars of this amount was offered to employers, to enable them to ensure that their employers were fairly compensated in the wake of the pandemic.
Such issues have not been faced by workers alone. In marquee companies such as Raymond Apparel Ltd, salaries of employees were arbitrarily reduced by 65% from the month of April onwards. Senior staff members were fired without settling their legal dues, in breach of their employment contracts as well as well-settled principles of labour law. Even large, reputed media houses such as The Hindu, are pressuring over 100 of its journalists to resign. They have already illegally terminated the services of over 20 journalists without clearing the minimum amount of legal dues to them.
On the other hand, states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have relaxed, and in some cases completely suspended, statutory provisions to protect the minimum standards of employment across all industries. Legal restrictions on the maximum number of working hours in shifts per day have been doubled. The Minimum Wages Act and a majority of the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 have been suspended, thereby precluding workers and employees from seeking legal recourse against ludicrous work hours at paltry wages.
It is necessary to understand what the consequences of non payment of wages and waiving off legal provisions securing their basic interests will lead to. Rampant scarcity of employment and income has caused uncontrollable migration of people, desperate to return home, to their native places.
The pandemic in fact offers the Government an opportunity to ensure that the relationship between workers and industries can be somewhat repaired by offering assistance, particularly to the unorganised sector workers, who are most susceptible to exploitation.
The world watched in horror as migrant labourers trudged home on bleeding, calloused feet across thousands of kilometers with their children and belongings strapped on to their shoulders. Apart from the inhumanity behind driving migrant workers to take such steps, the mobility of persons was counter-productive to the Government’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.
Bearing in mind that with each passing day, India registers its highest ever number of COVID-19 cases, the pandemic is not a situation that will resolve itself anytime soon.
It is the pressing need of the Central and State Government to invest its resources in implementing a roadmap to ensure that workers feel secure and fairly compensated in the event that there is a further lockdown. The pandemic in fact offers the Government an opportunity to ensure that the relationship between workers and industries can be somewhat repaired by offering assistance, particularly to the unorganised sector workers, who are most susceptible to exploitation. Such an opportunity should not be squandered away due to poor planning and catering only to the demands of industries while forsaking the interests of workers and employees.
( Ronita Bhattacharya Bector is an Advocate, Bombay High Court. Views expressed are personal.)