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Plea filed in Supreme challenging constitutional validity of Labour Law Notifications/Ordinances passed by 10 states

Debayan Roy

A Kerala-based law student has moved the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the notifications/ordinances issued by various state governments doing away with labour laws dealing with payment of wages, health and safety of workers, and working hours, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plea filed by Nandini Praveen through Advocate Nishe Rajen Shonker claims that the notifications and ordinances issued by the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Assam are ultra vires the Constitution.

The petitioner states that Central Laws such as the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947; the Factories Act, 1948; the Code of Wages Act, 2019 and all other laws on labour issues cannot be overruled by executive orders issued by the state governments.

The petition states that every day, labourers in the concerned states are “put to sheer exploitation in terms of working hours, wages, health and safety conditions.”

“The impugned laws violate the fundamental rights of the citizens concerned. Thus, they are deprived of the benefit of the existing central labour laws passed by the parliament. Since lakhs of labourers/ workers are subjected to the rigour of the impugned laws on a day to day basis and since the impugned laws are promulgated for a specified period, a stay of the same is sought for in the writ petition. After the said period, the writ petition may turn infructuous.”

Praveen has contended that though the impugned laws are passed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, purportedly to enable better economic activity and market reform, they “are violative of the workers' fundamental rights under Articles 14, 15, 19, 21 and 23 of the Constitution of India”.

Highlighting the faulty grounds on which the states have suspended labour laws, the petitioner says that the same was “purportedly done so invoking powers under Section 36B of the Industrial Disputes Act”.

A reading of Section 36B along with the above conditions shows that the notification is ultra-vires of the Section for two reasons. Firstly, the Section does not permit the state government to exempt any undertaking from the provisions of the Act unless there is adequate mechanism for investigation and settlement of disputes. It is a prerequisite. Secondly, the purpose of the section is not to give power to states to exempt the entire Act without any other alternative, in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pointing to the Uttar Pradesh Ordinance, the petitioner has contended that Clause 3, which suspends labour laws for a period of three years, would lead to employers not paying wages at all.

It is pertinent to note that the Uttar Pradesh government has since withdrawn its notification to relax certain labour law regulations concerning working hours, rest periods and overtime.

Since the Code of Wages is suspended and since the Payment of Wages Act is repealed, there would be no statutory obligation for the factories and establishments to give timely wages to their employees, the plea contends.

Therefore, the ordinance has essentially led to abolition of minimum wages for labourers in these establishments. This is violative of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution."

The petition drawn by advocates Aruna A, Thulasi K Raj, Maitreyi S Hegde, Laila Thasnim, Vinayak G Menon and settled by Advocate Kaleeswaram Raj states,

“By way of the impugned Notifications and Ordinances, the respondent State Governments have opened a path to the employers to further exploit this oppressed class.”

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