How the Supreme Court let down poor workers during the pandemic -Gautam Bhatia

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published Published on Aug 17, 2020   modified Modified on Aug 28, 2020

-Hindustan Times

By effectively insulating employers from paying wages to workers, it has reinforced an unequal power dynamic

The coronavirus pandemic — and the measures taken by the central and state governments to contain it over the last five months — has led to widespread disruption across the country. A substantial part of this disruption is asymmetric in nature; that is, it has disproportionately affected vulnerable and marginalised people, those unable to work from home, and so on. As we have seen, migrant workers have been particularly affected: The closure of shops, establishments, and industries, in accordance with the lockdown, led to large-scale migration, as workers were left with no source of daily wages to sustain themselves in the cities where they worked.

Accordingly, on March 29, the National Executive Committee, acting under the Disaster Management Act (DMA), issued an order requiring all employers to pay wages to their workers, on the due date and without any deduction, for the period that they had been under closure. The measure was an important one, as it sought to provide a source of basic financial support to workers, at a time at which they had been deprived of their source of livelihood. The order was subsequently withdrawn in May, and so — effectively — what it required was the payment of wages for a period of 54 days, by employers to their workers.

This order, however, was challenged before the Supreme Court (SC). It was argued, among other things, that DMA did not give to the government the power to mandate payment of wages, and, that, in any event, it impinged upon the rights of the employers. The apex court was, therefore, asked to adjudicate upon whether the government had acted legally, and whether its direction for the payment of wages was valid.

Unfortunately, however, SC passed a series of orders that effectively decided in favour of the employers, and against the workers, but without explicitly doing so.

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Hindustan Times, 17 August, 2020,

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