The Supreme Court is soon to hear a a Kerala-based law student’s petition, which stated that changes made to labour laws amid the COVID-19 pandemic, supposedly to boost economic activity and market reform, amounted to forced labour in reality.
Nandini Praveen’s petition, settled by advocate Kaleeswaram Raj and filed by advocate Nishe Rajen Shonker, said the ordinances and notifications issued by some State governments made “fundamental changes in the labour law framework of the country.”
Besides the Centre, the petition made the States of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa, Assam, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh respondent parties.
It said Haryana, Assam, Punjab and Goa had issued notifications extending the working hours.
An Uttar Pradesh ordinance stated that “all factories and establishments engaged in manufacturing process shall be exempted from the operation of all labour laws for a period of three years..” subject to certain conditions.
“Since the Code of Wages is suspended and the Payment of Wages Act is repealed, there is no statutory obligation for the factories and establishments to give timely wages to their employees. Therefore, the ordinance has essentially led to the abolition of minimum wages for labourers in these establishments,” the petition said in connection with Uttar Pradesh.
“The impugned laws, by suspending welfare and health measures of workers and by increasing the work hours, constitute forced labour as widely defined by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) case of 1982,” it stated.
The amended laws violated workers’ right to assemble peacefully, form unions or associations. They suspended recognition of trade unions. These new laws also affected workers’ right to health, leisure, safe working conditions that fall within the ambit of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. The laws were also violative of the international framework on labour laws.
Industrial Disputes Act
The petition pointed out that certain States had exempted factories from the ambit of the Industrial Disputes Act, a crucial law prohibiting unfair labour practices.
“The Act does not permit a State government to exempt any undertaking unless there is adequate mechanism for investigation and settlement of disputes. It is a prerequisite. Secondly, the law does not empower the States to exempt the entire Act without any other alternative, in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic,” it argued.
Similarly, the petition noted that some States had illegally exempted industries from the ambit of the Factories Act, 1947. “No State government has the power to issue notifications exempting factories from the purview of the Factories Act under the pretext of pandemic,” it said.
The Act only gave the States the power to exempt any or a class or a description of factories for a period of three months, that too, in a case of “public or grave emergency”, whereby national security was specifically threatened by external aggression or internal disturbance. ‘A global pandemic hardly fits this bill’, it said.