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Supreme Court moved challenging relaxation in labour laws in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh amid COVID-19 lockdown

Shruti Mahajan

A PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the decision of three States - Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh - to relax and dilute labour laws in the wake of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The petitioner has moved the Supreme Court seeking quashing of the notifications by the States through which the provisions of the Factories Act of 1948 have come to be relaxed on the premise of "facilitating economic activities in various parts of the Country".

By exercising the power conferred on the States under Section 5 of the Factories Act, the States have relaxed the provisions of the Act to the detriment of the poor workman, the petition claims.

Section 5 of the Act deals with the Power to exempt during public emergency and the same has been exercised by the State governments in question amid the COVID-19 health crisis.

"These exemptions from the provisions of the pre-constitution statutes have been granted by way of executive orders by various State Governments to facilitate economic activities to the detriment of the workers and advantage of the employers in view of the global pandemic 'COVID-19.'"
the petition states.

It is the petitioner's case that while Section 5 of the Act provides for exemption in case of a public emergency, the scope of such an emergency is also provided for in the provision itself. The State governments have however, equated the ongoing health crisis with a public emergency to exercise this power.

Statutes under labour laws are welfare legislations, benevolent in nature, and enacted to provide protection to the "oppressed class" from the "oppressor class", the plea avers. With the said relaxation of the labor laws however, the States would be depriving this "oppressed class" from welfare measures at a time when they are the worst affected category amid this pandemic.

The plea goes on to add, "even under such a situation, a Welfare State cannot be expected to force its least fortunate and most oppressed citizens into further miseries on the pretext of facilitating economic activities/ development by taking away their existing rights to their detriment and for the advantage of more fortunate citizens."

The notifications enabling the relaxation in the labour laws would, inter alia, result in an increase in weekly and daily working hours for the workmen while denying them the right to approach the Courts, it is noted.

The imposition of a nation-wide lockdown has left a large population of workers jobless and in dire straits. Taking away the welfare provisions enacted for their benefit would only further worsen their miseries, the petitioner has argued. Highlighting the importance of these provisions and enactments, the petitioner says,

"It is worth mentioning that the laws sought to be suspended by the respondent States were enacted after independence, but before the enactment of the Constitution of India, which shows the importance given by our founding fathers to these legislations."

Making a case for quashing of the executive orders passed by the States permitting such dilution of labour laws, the petitioner has also added that these decisions are "unlaterally in favour of the 'oppressor' giving them the tool to further exploit the 'oppressed', who need urgent protection at this hour of misfortune".

The petitioner has thus prayed for the notifications in question to be declared ultra vires the provisions of the Factories Act as well as Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India and consequently quashed.

Also seeking an ad-interim ex parte stay on executive orders, the petitioner has prayed for a direction from the Court to restrain the States from "abrogating the statutory provisions under various statutes enacted for welfare of the workmen".

The petitioner is a resident from Jharkhand, Pankaj Kumar Yadav. The petition has been filed through Advocate Nirmal Kumar Ambastha.

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