‘Can’t Burden Workers’: SC Grants Overtime Wages Amid COVID-19

The bench also said that it is aware of the financial hardships faced by the factories.

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India
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Women waiting at Noida’s labour chowk with their kids. Image used for representation.
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The Supreme Court on Thursday, 2 October said the burden of economic slowdown cannot be put only on the workers, who are the backbone of economic activity, as it quashed the Gujarat government notification exempting factories from paying overtime wages to the workers.

A bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph said that the response to a pandemic could not be termed as an “internal disturbance” of a nature whereby the security of India is threatened.

“In any event, no factory/classes of factories could have been exempted from compliance with provisions of the Factories Act, unless an 'internal disturbance' causes a grave emergency that threatens the security of the state, so as to constitute a 'public emergency' within the meaning of Section 5 of the Factories Act,” said the top court in its 41-page verdict.

‘We Direct That Overtime Wages Be Paid’

Using the Constitution’s Article 142 to do complete justice, the bench said: “We direct that overtime wages shall be paid, in accordance with the provisions of Section 59 of the Factories Act, to all eligible workers who have been working since the issuance of the notifications.”

The bench said it is aware of the financial hardships faced by the factories, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown. However, it held, that this economic slowdown cannot burden the workers, and the ongoing pandemic cannot become a potent reason to override the statutory provisions providing dignity and the right to proper wages to the workers.

“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.

Noting that the Constitution allows for economic experiments, the bench said: "Judicial review is justifiably held off in matters of policy, particularly economic policy. But the Directive Principles of State Policy cannot be reduced to oblivion by a sleight of interpretation. To a worker who has faced the brunt of the pandemic and is currently labouring in a workplace without the luxury of physical distancing, economic dignity based on the rights available under the statute is the least that this Court can ensure them."

What Was the Plea?

The apex court order came on a plea challenging the notification of the Gujarat Labour and Employment Department, which granted exemptions to all factories in Gujarat from provisions of the Factories Act, 1948, relating to daily working hours, weekly working hours, intervals for rest and spread-overs of adult workers, and even from the duty to pay overtime wages at double rate as fixed under Section 59 of the Act.

The plea, filed by registered trade union Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and others, through advocate Aparna Bhat, contended that the 17 April notification “is patently illegal, violative and unnaturally unjust of various fundamental rights, statutory rights and labour laws”.

The plea contended that the notification granted exemption from the provisions of the Act for the period from 20 April to 19 July, and mandated that for the period from April 20 to July 19, workers in Gujarat can be made to work 12 hours in a day, 72 hours in a week with a 30 minute break after six hours.

However, the Factories Act, 1948, provides that workers can only be made to work nine hours in a day - but 48 hours in a week, with one weekly off -- thus, eight hours a day, with a 30 minute break after five hours. The notification further provides that no women workers will be allowed to work between 7 pm and 6 am.

The top court also said: “Clothed with exceptional powers under Section 5, the state cannot permit workers to be exploited in a manner that renders the hard-won protections of the Factories Act, 1948, illusory and the constitutional promise of social and economic democracy into paper-tigers. It is ironical that this result should ensue at a time when the state must ensure their welfare.”

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