Labour laws that have not been updated for decades and a creaking judiciary prolongs the fight for workers’ rights

M J Antony  

 Last Updated at 21:48 IST

Litigation can wear down both sides of equal strength. An ordinary person pitted against a giant corporation burns out faster. He tends to abandon the fight midway, exhausted by unbearable expenses, interminable adjournments and stress. Juridical people have no such compulsions. They have huge litigation funds and lawyers buzzing around it. However, some tenacious people from the bottom end climb up the judicial ladder till they succeed.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court delivered a few judgments in which ordinary workers were dragged in appeals for decades by big corporations. The small men did not give in, and their grit was rewarded. The revengeful corporations got severe tongue-lashing from the judges.

In one case, BSNL refused to pay Rs 20,000 to an employee who was terminated illegally in 1994. The government undertaking went in appeal against the labour court award to the Calcutta High Court. The high court held against the employee. He moved the Supreme Court. It asked BSNL to reinstate him with back wages. The high court “grossly erred”, said the Supreme Court, “since in the absence of full back wages, the employee will be distressed and will suffer punishment for no fault of his own.” (Tapash Kumar vs BSNL). Such vindictive litigation exists despite the earlier call of the court that government entities should act like “model employers”.

It cited an earlier judgment in which the court had described how the average person is browbeaten by corporations. It said: “His capacity to sustain himself throughout the protracted litigation is itself such an awesome factor that he may not survive to see the day when relief is granted. More so in our system where the law’s proverbial delay has become stupefying.” (Hindustan Tin Works vs Employees).

In the second case, an employee was the victim of a common trick played by employers these days after the liberalisation and breakdown of labour laws. At the end of every working year, he would be handed over a receipt of “relieved from work”. After a few days, he would be engaged again for three or six months without any proper procedure. Each time it was shown as a fresh appointment. This went on from 1992 for six years when the employee lost his patience and started his legal odyssey.

When he moved the labour court, it ordered reinstatement with back wages. On appeal by the employer, the Allahabad High Court ordered the employer to pay Rs 1 lakh as compensation and send him away. The gritty employee appealed to the Supreme Court. It ruled that he was entitled to reinstatement with full back wages, no matter the lapse of long years. (Bhuvnesh Kumar vs Hindalco Industries). Compensation, the judgment said, was a poor substitute for reinstatement.

Incidentally, these two judgments also cleared doubts over whether the court could pass an order of reinstatement as well as back wages after a long time. Some earlier decisions had taken the view that either one of the reliefs was enough. The new judgments stated that both could normally be granted to the desolate employee, though the facts and circumstances should be taken into account in individual cases.

The court recalled earlier judgments in which it had described the plight of an ordinary worker in the face of legal armoury deployed by powerful corporations. Last year, the court stated in the case,Deepali Gundu vs Kranti Junior Mahavidyalaya: “In most of these cases, the employer is in an advantageous position vis-a-vis the worker. He can avail of the services of the best legal brain for prolonging the agony of the sufferer who can ill afford the luxury of spending money on a lawyer.” The unavoidable delays due to the lack of infrastructure of the judiciary is used as a weapon by the powerful employers to break the spirit of the ordinary employee.

Labour laws have not been revised or updated for decades and the red sun of trade union movement has set over the horizon since the advent of the new socio-economic regime. Recent election manifestos of major political parties waxed eloquent on capital but spoke only in fleeting whispers on labour.

The Supreme Court’s call to protect “the unequal partner in the industry, namely, those who invest blood and flesh against those who bring in capital” (Glaxo Laboratories vs Presiding Officer) has not left even an echo. The informal sector, which employs 90 per cent of the workforce, are left without substantial protection. It is estimated that only 20 per cent are on regular wages under a contract. Even such contracts are consistently tweaked in favour of the employer. Unless the new government takes a second look at labour laws and brings in equitable reforms, there is a danger of unrest in society. Every worker cannot be expected to have the stamina to scale the creaking institution of the judiciary to claim his legitimate rights.

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