SC: Covid-led economic slowdown no ground to deny proper wages to workers

New Delhi:  The Supreme Court on Thursday said the burden of economic slowdown cannot be put on workers alone, who are the backbone of the economic activity, and quashed the Gujarat government notification exempting factories from paying overtime wages to the workers.

A bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said the court is aware of the financial hardships faced by the factories, amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and also due to the lockdowns. However, 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 top court noted that the statutory rights of workers should not have been done away by the Gujarat government, as the pandemic is not an internal emergency threatening the security of the country.

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 contended that April 17 notification “is patently illegal, violative and unnaturally unjust of various fundamental rights, statutory rights and labour laws.”

The plea has been filed by the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha, a registered trade union, and others through advocate Aparna Bhat.

The plea contended that the notification granted exemption from the provisions of the Act for the period from April 20 to July 19, 2020.

A bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and K.M. Joseph took up the plea through video conferencing and issued notice after a hearing.

The plea argued that the notification mandates that for the period from April 20 to July 19, 2020, 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. Instead, 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 week off — thus coming to eight hours in a day, with 30 minutes break after five hours. The notification further provides that no women workers will be allowed to work between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“Most disturbingly, the impugned notification prescribes that no overtime at double rate will be paid for the extra four hours worked per day, but rather that overtime work will merely be compensated at the usual hourly rate”, said the plea.