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SC strikes down the Guj. Notification of allowing factories for extended work hours without OT payment

The Supreme Court in the case of Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha & Anr. v. State of Gujarat  quashed a Gujarat government notification exempting factories from paying overtime wages to workers and providing ideal working conditions to them amid the COVID-19 lockdown .The Court has also directed the government to pay overtime wages to workers for that period.

The Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph ruled that the pandemic cannot be a reason to junk statutory provisions that ensure dignity and right to proper wages to workers. The Court, while quashing the notifications said,"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 are secured by Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution."

The order was passed in a petition challenging the state government's decision to exempt factories from the provisions of the Factories Act relating to work hours, and other benefits.

The Bench has further noted that the statutory rights of workers could not have been set aside by the Gujarat government as the pandemic is "not an internal emergency threatening the security of the country".

While acknowledging the financial hardships faced by factories due to slowdown in economic activities during the lockdown court said that  the burden of the economic slowdown cannot be put on workers alone, who are the backbone of economic activity.

During the nationwide lockdown in April this year, the Gujarat government issued a notification exempting factories in the state from certain provisions under the Factories Act between April 20 and July 19. This notification was passed by the state in purported exercise of its powers under Section 5 of the Act.

The notification essentially exempted factories from the mandate to comply with the provisions of the Factories Act which deal with payment of overtime wages, working hours fixed for the workers, resting intervals, etc.  The notification was  challenged byGujarat Mazdoor Sabha and Trade Union Centre of India on the grounds that the State has acted ultra vires the Act, considering the fact that Section 5 only allows for exemption in cases of public emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic, while being a critical issue affecting the country, has still not been declared as an emergency.

Source: Bar & Bench