Pandemic: No strings attached w.r.t Article 21 of Workers

The world, including India, is tussling with a microscopic, deadly enemy named Coronavirus. The contagious nature of the virus has resulted in many of these countries implementing draconian measures, even going as far as imposing complete military lockdowns. India, home to billions, has asked its citizens to stay home to prevent contagion. Scientifically, the only way to contain an infectious disease like this one is by the imposition of harsh quarantines. Pursuant to the implementation of lockdown, all commercial and industrial establishments that are not engaged in providing essential services were closed. Although it is to prevent the spread of the virus, it brings with it certain undesirable effects. The most vulnerable ones would be the daily workers who earn their bread by working in factories or industries. Further, the nature of the work they carry is such that they cannot undertake it from home. This indeed affects the Right to life of the workers viz. Article 21.

The lockdown was imposed by the State invoking provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Disaster Management Act, 2005. The main aim of the former is to take all such measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic, while the latter specifically deals with the effective management of disasters. In addition to the lockdown, the government also passed a Notification dated 20.03.2020 mandating the employers/ establishments not to terminate employees and not to cut wages of the workers.

The central argument with respect to the Notification passed by the State is that the Act under which the lockdown was imposed doesn’t confer power upon the government to direct employers to pay wages. It has already been mentioned that the aforesaid Acts were enforced to impose lockdown. With respect to the aforesaid argument, it is crucial to identify the corresponding laws that have clothed the government with such power. Following are the relevant legislations concerning the payment of wages:

  • Factories Act, 1948: This Act deals with the regulation of labour in factories[1]. The said Act makes provisions for health, safety, welfare, working hours, and leaves of workers in factories. These provisions are very general in nature and do not deal with the matter in hand specifically.
  • Payment of Wages Act: Though this Act deals with the payment of wages[2] to the employees, it does not cover the present situation precisely. It further does not equip the government to impose compulsory payment of wages.
  • Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946: This Act requires employers in industrial establishments to formally define conditions of employment under them[3]. It deals with the conditions of employment precisely and, just like the aforementioned ones, does not troubleshoot the issue at hand.
  • Industrial Dispute Act, 1947: The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 is a Special Law which mandates payment of lay-off compensation in the event of a natural calamity or other connected reasons[4]. The liability in this Special Law, which is specific, has restricted the payment of 50 percent of wages as compensation.
  • Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897: The Epidemic Diseases Act was enacted in 1897 to prevent the spread of bubonic plague in then Bombay. The objective of the Act is to prevent the spread of epidemic diseases. Under the Act, both the Central and the State governments have the powers to take measures in order to control the epidemic.
  • Disaster Management Act, 2005: The scope of Act is to manage the disasters and establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority and State Disaster Management Authority respectively and to have an integrated command over disaster management. A plain reading of the Act indicates that it doesn’t facilitate the government with the powers issue such a Notification. Additionally, the Covid-19 outbreak is classified as a disaster under the Act[5] allowing the Central govt. deal with the pandemic by laying down policies, guideline, and plans.

All the relevant Acts that deal with labour and wages do not clothe the State with powers to issue a Notification mandating to pay wages to the workers.  The Notification, however, is nothing but adherence to the important fundamental right to life under Article 21.

The Notification mandating the payment of wages during lockdown cannot be perceived from the restricted sphere of labour laws. Instead, it should be viewed as a translation of the duty that the Constitution imposes on the government. Therefore, the author contends that the narrowly viewed argument of the government is not having such a power is an erroneous one.

Furthermore, the problem does not end by establishing that the government has the power to issue such a notification. The main concern is imposing such a notification, especially in case of Small and Medium industries, as they would undergo certain challenges that could even lead to bankruptcy. Therefore, the government should not come to such a conclusion from one point of view; instead, it should consider the hardships of both employers and workers.

In order to attain an equilibrium, the author suggests that the government come up with a subsidized scheme that would finance employers towards wage payment during the lockdown. This would, in turn, rescue both the employers and workers. The judiciary, in a plethora of cases, upholds the importance of Article 21, i.e., Right to Life. This is extremely crucial, even during a pandemic; the same should not be compromised by the government.

Ergo, things would have been much better if the government would have shown mercy to amend the law with the changing needs of society. None of these laws are equipped to cope with the current situation. It is very unfortunate that the legislature disregarded a motion to revise a law that was enacted more than a century ago. Though the ready-made Notification comes to the rescue, it does not completely terminate the current concern. The time is ripe for the government to revise their laws and anticipate the future of the country.


[1] Preamble, Factories Act, 1948

[2] Preamble, Payment of Wages Act, 1936

[3] Preamble, Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946

[4] Section 2 (kkk), Industrial Dispute, Act, 1947

[5] Section 2 (d), Disaster Management Act, 2005

Sai Hasitha from Presidency University

Editor: Sanskriti Sood

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