On 11th July 2020, during a national webinar on ‘Entitlement of Minimum Wages- A Fundamental Right’, former Chief Justice Hon’ble P. Sathasivam reiterated that “the states have a constitutional responsibility and employers have statutory responsibilities in the issue of minimum wage”
Non-payment of minimum wages or reluctance on the part of the employer in paying the minimum wage is not only illegal, inhuman and immoral but it also attracts criminal liability on the head of the employer. Judiciary is an active guardian of labour rights when there is a breach of the same. Not paying the minimum wage is a crime and a violation of fundamental rights. Non-payment of minimum wage is a common element in bonded labour cases and in other forms of labour exploitation. However, it is often viewed as a labour issue and is not given adequate priority. The Minimum Wages Act was enacted in the year 1948 and later in the 1980s, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India interpreted the same as a fundamental right for all citizens under Article 21 and 23 of the Indian Constitution. However, non-payment of minimum wage continues to be treated with lenience and casually.
Wages is the issue of Concurrent list, so state has right to revise the minimum wages as per their peoples living standard and condition. Corona pandemic is being misused to take away the hard-earned rights of workers. “During the lockdown, workers were not offered protection. Most workers have not received any salary for 2-3 months. Those who work away from home could not pay rentals; they have not been getting food to eat as rations are over, hardly anyone has got promised rations, and workers are not being helped to return home. Now under lockdown rights are being attacked and the stage is set to reduce workers to slaves. All the other labour laws stand suspended for 1,000 days (three years).
Laws pertaining to trade unions, contract workers, industrial disputes, occupational safety, health and working conditions of workers have been put on hold. The propose amendments in the labour laws will allow companies not to follow required safety standards related to health , safety and working condition of the employees new unit set up in Madhya Pradesh will be exempted from the necessary provisions of cleanliness, disposal of waste, ventilation, lighting, drinking water, urinals, canteens, restrooms, creches, working hours, wages during the leave period, and the need of the manager of the factory to send notice to authorities in case an worker contracts occupational diseases.
There are apprehensions within one section of the government over the move being seen as anti-worker, though another section views it as one that will protect jobs The government cautious after labour unions strongly opposed changes to labour laws announced by Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat state to provide flexibility to industry in hire and fire. The final decision has implications for state governments because if the Centre revises the minimum wage, they too will have to carry out similar revisions. Now, many states are not keen on any increase in wages as they are under severe financial stress due to a steep fall. Businesses across sectors have appealed against any increase in minimum wages for the time being, citing the severe impact of the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent nationwide lockdown on the industry. Industry has termed it as a non-cash subsidy that will not cost the government, but can provide some financial relief to employers.
Now the situation has come where we can find the exploitation of labours has begun there may be high chances of force and bonded labour.
Bandhua Mukti Morch v/s UOI Judgement, 1984 3SCC “Most bonded labourers are members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and there would be no occasion for a labourer to be placed in a situation where he is required to supply forced labour for no wage or for nominal wage, unless he has received some advance or other economic consideration from the employer and under the pretext of not having returned such advance or other economic consideration, he is required to render service to the employer or is deprived of his freedom of employment or of the right to move freely wherever he wants. Therefore, whenever it is shown that a labourer is made to provide forced labour, the Court would raise a presumption that he is required to do so in consideration of an advance or other economic consideration received by him and he is therefore a bonded labourer”.
As per the Labour Law Minimum wages has been defind as the level of income for skilled and unskilled workers which ensure a sustaining standard of living while also providing for some measure of comfort. A minimum wages not just supports the bare level of employment , but also seeks for the viable continuous improvement. It aims at preventing exploitation of labour.
Peoples Union for Democratic Right V Union of India AIR 1982 SC 1473
The Rule of Law does not mean that the protection of the law must be available only to a fortunate few or that the law should be allowed to be prostituted by the vested interests for protecting and upholding the status quo under the guise of enforcement of their civil and political rights. The poor too have civil and political rights. The SC also Stated that laws protecting labour and inter state migrant workmen were intended to ensure basic human dignity; violating these laws would violate the right to life under Article 21, the court also held that the Forced labour, prohibited by Art 23. Included not just physical force but also the threat of imprisonment or fine.
Moreover, It is the responsibility of the state and state must be mindful in their action for achieving social justice for the labour and if state has strong will power it can be done.
People’s Union Democratic Rights (PUDR) v India (1982) 3 SCC 253.
By Pappu Kumar Vardhan