Onus of paying full wage to staff on the employer: Govt

The directive had been intended to alleviate human suffering and will not come in the way of employers and employees negotiating the payment terms, the AG said.
Supreme Court of India, photo by Rajkumar
Supreme Court of India, photo by Rajkumar
Updated on Jun 04, 2020 11:56 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent, New Delhi

The Centre is committed to restarting industries and reviving the economy, the central government’s top law officer, attorney general (AG) KK Venugopal, told the Supreme Court on Thursday during the hearing of a case challenging the home ministry’s March 29 directive to employers to pay workers in full for the lockdown period.

The directive had been intended to alleviate human suffering and will not come in the way of employers and employees negotiating the payment terms, the AG said.

“Government of India is interested in economy restarting, industries restarting. It is for employers to negotiate with employees as to how much wage could be paid for lockdown period, we will not interfere,” Venugopal said.

Industries, traders and their associations, which are the petitioners before the apex court in the case, countered by arguing that workers will not come to the negotiating table as long as the government notification mandating payment of full wages is in operation.

“With the March 29 notification in place, no negotiation will be possible since workers will not come to negotiating table. We are as much citizens as the workers are”, senior counsel KV Viswanathan, who was appearing for the company B4S Solution Ltd, told the bench headed by justice Ashok Bhushan.

The bench also seemed to share the concerns of the employers, stating that mandating payment of full wages during the lockdown could have an adverse impact on the industries.

“The notification directs payment of 100% of salaries. It could have been around 50 to 75%. Do you have the power to ask them to pay 100%,” justice Bhushan asked.

The bench, which also comprised justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah, reserved its verdict, which will be delivered on June 12. The court also granted interim protection to employers directing that no coercive action be taken against them until the court delivers its verdict.

“List for orders on June 12. In the meantime, no coercive action, against the employers shall be taken pursuant to notification dated March 29,” the order said.

The contentious notification issued by the ministry of home affairs on March 29 stated that employers must pay wages in full to all their employees even if their establishments are closed because of the lockdown.

“All the employers, be it in the industry or in the shops and commercial establishment, shall make payment of wages of their workers, at their work places on due date, without any deduction for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown”, clause (iii) of the MHA order said.

Companies and associations approached the Supreme Court ,stating that the obligation to pay employees arises only when work is actually done.

“An employer and employee have reciprocal promises whereby the right of an employee to demand salary is reciprocal to performance of work by such employee. The employer has a right to not pay if no work is done”, the plea by Hand Tool Manufacturers Association, an association of around 52 firms based out of Punjab, said.

The AG told the bench that the directive was to ensure that workers in industries stayed put instead of migrating to their home towns/ villages during the lockdown.

“The humanitarian grounds on which this order was issued should be considered. People were migrating in crores. They would have stayed put only if they were paid”, he said in defence of the government notification.

Senior counsel Indira Jaising, who appeared for Angmenhanti Kashtakari Sangarsh Samiti, an umbrella coalition of informal workers, also supported the government directive, arguing that it was intended to protect workers who had been prevented from going to work by the authorities because of the pandemic.

“If an authority prevents me from going to work, then that authority should ensure that I am protected. We have honoured the lockdown”, she said.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2022