Pandemic's Impact on Indian Labour Laws

Individuals and the economy have been severely hampered due to the global pandemic and the nationwide lockdown. Many amendments, advisories, and announcements have been introduced to minimise the impact of the pandemic on the general public and business establishments and ensure minimal disruption in the supply chain. These should ideally continue during the containment period. Understanding the implications of these developments is critical for business operations to run smoothly. The State of Uttar Pradesh enacted the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Rules Ordinance, 2020, which suspended 35 out of the 38 labour laws for three years. Other states, such as Madhya Pradesh, have followed suit.

According to reports, the aforementioned decree has suspended all labour-related legislation except the Workmen Compensation Act of 1923, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, and the Building and Other Construction Workers Act of 1996. However, Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, which pertains to timely wage payment, will remain in effect.

Even though the Uttar Pradesh government has authorised the Ordinance, it has yet to get Presidential assent, required by Article 213 of the Indian Constitution. The reason for such initiatives has been put forward as encouraging investment and jobs. The premise behind the suspension and dilution is that, given the current circumstances, business and industry needed a certain amount of flexibility to meet the needs of workers who have returned to the state and to protect existing worker employment.

The Effects of the Change

While the reforms are well-intentioned and aimed at promoting investment and industries, the unexpected implications of such a move are severe. While the governments have claimed that workers will be protected due to the action, it reminds us of a Machiavelli quote: "Never let a good crisis go to waste."

Compared to other governments' efforts to avoid layoffs by giving subsidies and the UN's request to reduce the pandemic's impact on employees, this is a step in the opposite direction.

Labour laws can be divided into four categories based on the goals they seek to achieve: Working Conditions, Wages, Social Security, and Labour Relations. On a variety of fronts, the unexpected suspension of labour regulations would leave the workforce at the mercy of businesses. Some laws require establishments to be compliant by offering minimum salaries and basic safety standards. If a business employs more than a particular number of people, a shutdown would require prior consent. Other legal obligations include notification, retrenchment compensation, and payment of dues such as gratuity. Several employers would take advantage of the situation and fire people without dealing with the paperwork. Also, the suspension implies that trade unions would be unable to file a claim under the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, leaving hapless workers without a method of redressing their grievances.

The Actions' Constitutional Validity

Under Part III and Part IV of the Indian Constitution, dealing with Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP), respectively, confers many rights to protect and safeguard labour interests.

Freedom to Form Associations

The aforementioned action has limited citizens' ability to form groups and unions, as guaranteed by Article 19(1)(c). The United States association presupposes organisation and includes the ability to form trade unions within its scope. This fundamental right is impaired when all labour regulations are suspended, including the Trade Unions Act, 1926. Furthermore, such trade unions speak for and represent other employees in front of the authorities in the event of a dispute, which is critical in any collective bargaining framework. The very rationale for a trade union's existence is to counteract the employer's bargaining strength. Even if it is argued that suspension would be valid under Article 19(4), which allows for various reasonable restrictions to be imposed on the grounds of public order, morality, or India's sovereignty and integrity, a balance must be struck between rights and restrictions in order to maintain bargaining power.

The Right to Life in all its aspects

In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the scope of Article 21 was broadened to include a wide range of rights. With all of its sides and interpretations, it is like Pandora's Box. As the case of Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi shows, the right to life does not imply a simple animal existence but rather a right to live with dignity. Furthermore, as stated in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, this right includes the right to livelihood. Social security regulations (Minimum Wages Act of 1948, the Factories Act of 1948, and even the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947) were suspended to carry out the aforementioned activity. As a result, labourers and employees lose their right to a dignified living, as they no longer have a guaranteed minimum wage or protection against retrenchment or layoffs. Employers are also no longer required to provide minimum levels of safety and care for their employees, as stipulated in the Factories Act of 1948.

Ironically, despite the Supreme Court of India recognising the right to access to justice as a fundamental right in the case of Anita Kushwaha v. Pushap Sadan, the grievance redressal mechanism for them, as provided in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, is also unavailable due to the suspension of the laws (2016).

Right to be Free of Exploitation

In Sanjit Roy v. State of Rajasthan, it was decided that paying a worker working on famine relief work less than the minimum wage violates Article 23. When the state takes labour or services from someone suffering from drought or shortages, the state cannot pay him less than the minimum wage because it is given to aid them. The state cannot use their helplessness. There are parallels to be found between this instance and the current situation. Employers in both the commercial and public sectors would be exploited if the Minimum Wage Act were to be suspended. It would put the workers in a situation of forced labour, which the Constitution expressly prohibits.

Even COVID-19 can not justify the deliberate underutilisation of the labour force. The government needs to protect citizens' interests in these times. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, have responded positively to help employees and companies in times of crisis. It is possible that his suspension may be lifted.

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