SC quashes Gujarat notification exempting factories from payment of overtime wages
The Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday struck down the Gujarat government’s decision to exempt industries in the state from certain provisions of the Factories Act, 1948 relating to the payment of overtime wages and also for fixed working hours between April 20 and July 19 on grounds of public emergency due to the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic-induced lockdown restrictions.
The apex court observed that right to life of workers is not conditional and their just claims to overtime wages and decent working conditions must not be denied because of the Covid-19 outbreak and massive disruption of economic activities following the 68-day nationwide lockdown restrictions.
The lockdown was enforced from March 25 in a bid to contain the contagion.
An SC bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, held that workers faced unprecedented social and economic challenges during the lockdown and law cannot be used as an affront to their right to life and their just claims against forced labour.
The Gujarat government had issued a notification on April 17 to provide relaxation to industries during the lockdown period by exempting them from certain conditions mandated under the Factories Act, 1948.
The notification provided that workers in Gujarat can be made to work 12 hours a day with a 30-minute break after every six hours. It also did away with the requirement to pay double the wages for overtime work. The order had stated that normal wages can be paid even for overtime work.
The notification was issued under section 5 of the Factories Act, 1948.
Section 5 allows a government to exempt industries from the purview of Factories Act, 1948 on grounds of public emergency.
Section 5 defines public emergency as a grave emergency, which threatens the internal security of the country whether by war or external aggression or even internal disturbances.
The SC held that section 5 cannot be invoked to provide a blanket relief to all factories citing Covid-19 pandemic and the contagion cannot be considered a public emergency threatening national security.
Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI (M), had moved the SC, challenging the Gujarat government’s April 17 notification.
The petitioners had cited that Section 5 of the Factories Act, 1948, which provides for exemption only in cases of public emergency and that, too, for a factory or a class of factories. It does not provide for a blanket exemption for all factories, the plea had added.
The court ordered that overtime wages should be paid to all eligible workers in Gujarat between April 20 and July 19, when the state government’s notification was in operation.