Right to Life of workers can’t be supposed to contingent on the mercy of their employer or the State

The SC  quashed a notification issued by the Labour and Employment Department of the State of Gujarat under Section 5 of the Factories Act that exempted all factories registered under the Act “from various provisions relating to weekly hours, daily hours, intervals for rest etc. for adult workers” under Sections 51, 54, 55 and 56. Allowing the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha’s writ petition the Supreme Court observed that Workers’ right to life cannot be deemed contingent on the mercy of their employer or the State. The Court has also referred to different instances on ‘public emergency’ and ‘security of the state’.

The bench noted:

This Court is cognizant that the Respondent aimed to ameliorate the financial exigencies that were caused due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. However, financial losses cannot be offset on the weary shoulders of the labouring worker, who provides the backbone of the economy. Section 5 of the Factories Act could not have been invoked to issue a blanket notification that exempted all factories from complying with humane working conditions and adequate compensation for overtime, as a response to a pandemic that did not result in an ‘internal disturbance’ of a nature that posed a ‘grave emergency’ 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.

On ‘public emergency’ and ‘security of the state’ the court observed:

“The power under Section 5 of the Factories Act can be exercised in a “public emergency”. The explanation states that to constitute a public emergency, there must be a grave emergency. The emergency must be of such a nature as to threaten the security of India or a part of its territory. The threat to the security of India or a part of the territory must be caused by war, external aggression or an internal disturbance. The expression ‘internal disturbance’ cannot be divorced from its context, or be read in a manner divorced from the other two expressions which precede it. They are indicative of the gravity of the cause which threatens the security of India or a part of its territory. An internal disturbance must be of similar gravity. Further, it is necessary to evaluate whether a situation of internal disturbance threatens the security of India, or a part of its territory to qualify as a ‘public emergency’. In the absence of any one or more of the constituent elements, the conditions requisite for the exercise of statutory power will not exist.

“We find that the economic slowdown created by the COVID-19 pandemic does not qualify as an internal disturbance threatening the security of the state. The pandemic has put a severe burden on existing, particularly public health, and 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. 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. However, such challenges are to be resolved by the State Governments within the domain of their functioning under the law, in coordination with the Central Government. Unless the threshold of economic hardship is so extreme that it leads to disruption of public order and threatens the security of India or of a part of its territory, recourse cannot be taken to such emergency powers which are to be used sparingly under the law. Recourse can be taken to them only when the conditions requisite for a valid exercise of statutory power exist under Section 5. That is absent in the present case. “The bench said this on the argument of the state justifying the notifications that the pandemic has created an internal disturbance

The Court further explained some crucial points:

The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation with which countries all over the world are grappling. In India, the Central Government imposed a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020 for an initial period of 21 days to take effective measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, including, maintenance of essential supplies and services and healthcare facilities. The lockdown was subsequently extended until 31 May 2020. During the lockdown, economic activity in the country was brought to a standstill. There was a widespread migration of labour from the cities, where all avenues for work had closed. There was an unprecedented human migration, countless of the marginalized on foot, to rural areas in search of the bare necessities to sustain life. There has been a loss of incomes and livelihood. The brunt of the pandemic and of the lockdown has been borne by the working class and by the poorest of the poor. Bereft of social security, they have no fallback options.

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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. However, such challenges are to be resolved by the State Governments within the domain of their functioning under the law, in coordination with the Central Government. Unless the threshold of economic hardship is so extreme that it leads to disruption of public order and threatens the security of India or of a part of its territory, recourse cannot be taken to such emergency powers which are to be used sparingly under the law. Recourse can be taken to them only when the conditions requisite for a valid exercise of statutory power exist under Section 5. That is absent in the present case.

If the factories producing medical equipment such as life-saving drugs, personal protective equipment or sanitizers, would be exempted by way of Section 65(2), while justly compensating the workers for supplying their valuable labour in a time of urgent need. However, a blanket notification of exemption to all factories, irrespective of the manufactured product, while denying overtime to the workers, is indicative of the intention to capitalize on the pandemic to force an already worn-down class of society, into the chains of servitude.

The Constitution allows for economic experiments. 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. Justice Patanjali Sastry immortalized that phrase of this Court as the sentinel on the qui vive in our jurisprudence by recognizing it in State of Madras vs. V G Row. The phrase may have become weather-beaten in articles, seminars and now, in the profusion of webinars, amidst the changing times. Familiar as the phrase sounds, judges must constantly remind themselves of its value through their tenures, if the call of the constitutional conscience is to retain meaning.

The ‘right to life’ guaranteed to every person under Article 21, which includes a worker, would be devoid of an equal opportunity at social and economic freedom, in the absence of just and humane conditions of work. 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 is secured by Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution.

Case Name: Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha vs. State of Gujarat
Case no. :Writ Petition (Civil) No. 708 of 2020
Coram: Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph

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