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Plea in Supreme Court seeks action against employers terminating employees during COVID-19 Lockdown; calls for Ordinance to protect workers

Various private companies have initiated a "drive of illegal mass termination of the employees, withholding of the salaries" etc. in "complete breach and violation" of Government advisories/notifications, states the plea

Debayan Roy

As the month-long lockdown has left several employers resorting to the "mass termination of employees," a plea in the Supreme Court seeks strict compliance of the government notifications dated March 20 and March 29, which directs employers not to terminate jobs and to ensure that wages are paid during lockdown.

The plea has been moved by advocate Rajesh Inamdar and Harpreet Saluja, General Secretary of the National Information Technology Employees Sena – "NITES" (affiliated to Bharatiya Kamgar Sena), which works for the welfare and benefits of IT/ITES/BPO/KPO employees.

The petitioners clarify that they do not seek to burden employers but, rather are seeking to achieve a "balance between the rights of the employers and those of the employees, the latter being the more disadvantaged class."

The government notifications which the petition seeks to be implemented is the March 20 advisory by Ministry of Labour and Employment read with Maharashtra State Government resolution (GR) by the Industries, Energy and Labour Department dated March 13, and the March 29 directive by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which state that employees should be not terminated during the lockdown and that wages should be paid in full.

The petition prays that the Court should also direct the initiation of action against all such companies who violate the directives under these government notifications under Section 51 and 58 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

The petition makes a case for the welfare of employees by stating that mass termination of employees, and the withholding of their salaries during these severe times is "contrary to public policy, and directly affecting the right to livelihood of several persons."

Since the Supreme Court from "time to time" has asked the parliament to bring a law to deal with prevalent issues, the petitioners state that an "ordinance or statute" should be brought in so that the employers cannot terminate jobs at their will.

"Various private companies in the country have initiated a drive of illegal mass termination of the employees, withholding of the salaries or illegal deduction of salaries in complete breach and violation of the directions/advisories and appeal made by Government and taking advantage of the deadlock situation which has emerged in the Country. Employers who are on dominant position are taking harsh decisions and unconscionable bargains with the employees."
reads the plea.

The plea states that the main purpose of the petition is to ensure that the lakhs of employees engaged in the private sector are not terminated, and so that they are able to draw at least subsistence salary, to get over the present unprecedented lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the petition, the principal question that arises for the consideration of the Supreme Court is "whether a balance has to be drawn between private contractual rights/obligations and public policy, in a pandemic situation."

Substantiating the need to file this PIL, the petitioners state that employees working in various IT/ITES companies across countries for over several years have been instructed /informed over phones calls about their termination, without even following the procedure envisaged under various enactments such as the Industrial Disputes Act etc.

"Such terminations are illegal, unreasonable and based on convenience. It is submitted no procedure like notice period, intimation to government authorities, payment of retrenchment compensation, payment of gratuity, Leave encashment, etc. has been undertaken by the Companies," says the plea.

Thus the primary basis of the petition is that such job and salary cuts is in contravention to the fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and Article 21.

The petition has been drawn by Advocates Rajesh Inamdar, Amit Pai, Aishwarya Rai B and Tosif Shaikh. The plea has been settled by Senior Advocate Devadatta Kamat.

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