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Labour Rights And The Pandemic: The Supreme Court’s Verdict In Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha Case

Due to the nationwide lockdown and the rise of the Covid-19 the world economies suffered a big blow with regard to infrastructural developments and revenue generation. In order to deal with the ongoing crises, a notification under Section 5 of the Factories Act, 1948 was issued by the Government of Gujarat.

The idea behind the same was to exempt all the categories of factories to comply with the various provisions with respect to weekly hours, daily hours, the intervals for rest, etc. for the workers as stipulated under Sections 51, 54, 55, and 56 of the Factories Act. Additionally, as per the wide notification, revised working conditions have to be followed by the factory workers.

The wide notification was challenged by the two active trade unions- Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and the Trade Union Centre of India. Dealing with the issues in the present case, the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court passed an impacting judgment in Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha v. State of Gujarat, (2020).

The Hon'ble Court struck down the notification, observing that the present slowdown in the economy at times of global pandemic does not qualify as an internal disturbance threatening the security of India or any part of its territory which was a precondition for the imposition of Section 5.

Further, it was opined by the court that the aforesaid notification clearly violates the fundamental rights of labour, barring the overhead costs of all factories in the state hence, these notifications issued by the government in the name of the pandemic are ultra vires and against the fundamental rights of labour.

The Impugned Labour Reforms Under The Notification

The sudden exodus of migrants across the country was a doleful testimony to the unstable conditions that pitch out the life of workers today. The pandemic, but more decisively the lockdown, has been harsh for workers. With the significant economic impediments alongside, the problems for working-class are only going to get deeper.

However, instead of redressing their plight, the State has tried to convert this pandemic into an opportunity by using it as a means to push significant labour reforms without any public discussion or debate. One such measure which highlighted such temperament consisted of the notifications that were the subject matter of the present case.

The State of Gujarat invoking its powers under Section 5 of the Factories Act, 1948, issued a notification for exempting all the factories registered under the Act from following the mandate under Section 51, 54, 55 and 56 of the Act from 20th April till 19th October, 2020.

The provisions, under the notification, sought to exempt industries from the following mandates
  • That, to raise the daily limit of work shifts from 9 hours to 12 hours
  • The Periods of work shall not exceed six hours and a rest interval of at least half an hour a day to be provided to a worker;
  • That no female workers shall be allowed or required to work in a factory between 7:00 PM to 6:00 AM.
  • The proportion of wages to be in accordance with the existing wage rate system.
Understanding the purpose underlying the notification it can be said that the government took a step forward so as to enable employers to overcome the 'extreme financial exigencies' suffered by them due to the pandemic in the State. By temporarily exempting factories and establishments from the operation of the Factories Act, the State contended that the lockdown had caused unwarranted slowdown in economic sector, disturbing the 'social order' and had obstructed the pace of life in the state. In order to deal with this, the state of Gujarat, under Section 5 of the Factories Act constituted a 'public emergency'. This enables the government to exempt the factories from the application of the provision of the said act.

What Constitutes A Public Emergency?

As per the explanation under section 5 of the Factories Act, "Public Emergency" refers to a critical emergency in which India's security or any part of the territory is threatened, whether by war or external exigencies, or internal disturbance. In order to understand the meaning of public emergency, the principle of noscitur a sociis must be applied, which states that the meaning of an unclear or ambiguous word shall be deduced by the word which surrounds it or is associated in the said context.

In the present case, the phrase 'internal disturbance' comes from the shared idea of 'war' and 'external aggression' which jeopardizes the security of the country. As held by Supreme Court neither the pandemic nor the lockdown would encircle these definitions. Such power conferred under this act can only be invoked in case when there is a critical emergency of such kind that it threatens the security of the state, such as war, internal or external exigencies, and not in any other circumstances.

In the case of Naga People's Movement of Human Rights v. Union of India, the Supreme Court observed that even if an 'internal disturbance' is a ground for concern, it does not constitute a threat to the security of the country or any part as likely in the case of an armed insurgence which could pose a threat to the security of the country.

Coming to the fact whether the pandemic and the following lockdown constitute a public emergency in the present case, the Court held that, even if the pandemic generated an internal disturbance as a result of mass migration and the economic slowdown that followed the lockdown, it did not cause an internal disturbance that jeopardized the country's peace and integrity.
While the Court acknowledged that the pandemic had posed serious problems to governance, it also noted that these challenges must be resolved within the normal legal, administrative, and political powers of the federal and state governments.

The Court has given a much-needed check as to how the government shall utilize its powers during a pandemic and in its name, by ruling that the pandemic and the economic circumstances arising from the lockdown do not qualify as a national emergency as such.

The notion that the economic hardship caused by the lockdown should be classified as a public emergency is also deceptive for another reason. The pandemic is a natural disaster that no government can control. The lockdown, on the other hand, was an executive decision, made after much thought by the Union administration.

There's no doubt that the pandemic demanded a swift and decisive response, but the government's decision to impose the world's toughest lockdown, without warning, or foresight, was an administrative act. As a result, the state is unable to profit from its own actions; it cannot purposefully create a state of economic emergency while concurrently exercising unprecedented powers under the pretext of a "public emergency."

Labour Protection And The Constitutional Vision

Apart from the interpretation of Section 5 under the Factories Act, the Hon'ble court in the present case, examined the primary purpose behind the regulation and how the impugned notification was unconstitutional for the matter of workers and their rights guaranteed under the realms of Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policies.

The court identified these two aspects engraved in the constitution to be visionary and for the creation of a "welfare state". Regardless of the fact that the DPSP are not enforceable in nature, it creates a duty on the state to apply those principles in making laws and formulating such policies.

Factories act is one such example in which DPSPs specifically- Article 38, 39, 42, and 43 were recognized so as to ensure proper management of the factories and their workers thereby insisting upon decent working conditions, dignity at the workplace, and livelihood. It does so by making an effort to neutralize the control dynamics between the management and its workmen by way of safeguarding- dignity at the workplace, decent work conditions coupled with a living wage. These concepts under the Constitution of India may become hollow aspirations if the desire for a dignified life is thwarted by the immensity of economic coercion and oppression.

Conclusion
The COVID-19 pandemic in India was accompanied by massive migrant worker problems with several workers including those hired or contracted by manufacturers, being forced to flee their places of work due to the decline. The notice in question disregards the workers' exposure to onerous working conditions at a time when the pandemic is eroding their already-bleak bargaining strength.

The state, while using its extraordinary powers under Section 5, cannot allow employees to be exploited in such a way that the hard-won protections under the Factories Act, 1948 become illusory and the constitutional promise of social and economic democracy becomes a paper-work.

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