In Randhir Singh v. Union of India(AIR 1982 SC 879), the Supreme Court has held that although the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ is not expressly declared by our Constitution to be a fundamental right, but it is certainly a constitutional goal under Articles 14, 16 and 39 (c) of the Constitution. In Dhirendra Chamoli v. State of U.P (AIR 1986 SC 172) it has been held that the principle of equal pay for equal work is also applicable to casual workers employed on daily wage basis. In State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Pragaji Vashi the Court has considerably widened the scope of the right to free legal aid. The right to free legal aid and speedy trial are guaranteed fundamental rights under Art. 21. Art 39A provides “equal justice” and “free legal aid”. It means justice according to law.
In addition are the provisions in Part IV of the Constitution of India. While Article 38 speaks of the promotion of welfare of all the people Article 39 (a) speaks specifically of right to an adequate means of livelihood for men and women equally. Article 39 (d) addresses the issue of equal pay for equal work for both men and women (the Government of India went on to enact the Equal Remuneration Act in 1975 to fulfill this direction) and Article 39 (e) particularly directs the state to ensure that its policy secures that the health and strength of workers, men and women and children are not abused and that the citizens are not forced by economic necessity to take to vocations unsuited to their age or strength. Article 41 adds strength to Article 39 (a) by stating that within the limits of its economic capacity and development the State should make effective provisions for securing the right to work amongst other things to its entire people. Article 42 is one of the hall marks of the Indian Constitution as it takes into consideration the very specific context of pregnancy related discrimination in the context of employment and therefore it directs the State to make provisions for securing not only just and humane conditions of work but also for Maternity Relief. It is in this context that the Government of India went on to enact the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 which enables women in the labour force who have been employed for 160 days in a year to provide leave with pay and medical benefit.
Judicial Creativity and the expansion of ‘Industrial Jurisprudence’
Even though the rights of labourers are governed by several statutes, it is important to understand the scope of constitutional remedies that have been recognized in this area. In this respect, the decision in People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India was significant in so far as it gave new dimensions to several areas pertaining to labour law. The case arose out of the denial of minimum wages to workmen engaged in various construction projects for the Asian games, the employment of children in the same and the non-enforcement of provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and the InterState Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. The case was admitted in the nature of a Public Interest Litigation on the basis of a letter sent to Justice P.N. Bhagwati. The dilution of the requirement of ‘locus standi’ enabled access to justice for the aggrieved workers who otherwise would have faced immense difficulties in approaching the Supreme Court. In addition to recognising the violation of Article 23 and 24, it was held that the non-observance of the above-mentioned statutes amounted to a violation of ‘personal liberty’ under Article 21. The reasoning advanced was that the protections conferred on the workmen by these legislations were intended to ensure the basic human dignity of the workmen. Hence, if the workmen are deprived of their rights under these welfare-oriented legislations, the same amounts to a violation of Article 21 by the respondents, which included the governmental agencies who were obtaining the services of the workmen through contractors. Another example where this approach was used was the decision in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India where Article 21 read with the Directive Principles enumerated in Articles 39, 41 and 42 were cited as the basis of the State’s obligation to identify, release and suitably rehabilitate bonded laborers under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.
Coming to the Directive Principles of State Policy enumerated in Part IV of the Constitution, Article 38 reflects the intent of the State to work towards an egalitarian society where there is equal opportunity for all citizens and social justice prevails. In this respect Article 39, 41, 42, 43 and 43A are considered to be the ‘magna carta’ of industrial jurisprudence in the Indian context. Article 39 reinforces the idea of working towards social equality and also enumerates several principles that are sought to be enforced by way of statutes.24 For instance, Article 39(a) recognises that all citizens have the right to an adequate means of livelihood, which corresponds to the idea of protecting 8 the basic dignity of individuals that has been read under Article 21 as well. As mentioned earlier, there is a directive for ensuring ‘equal pay for equal work’ for both men and women, which corresponds to the idea of ‘equal protection before the law’ and is enforced by the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976. Article 39(e) also emphasizes the need to ensure that the health and strength of workers is not adversely affected and that they are not forced to enter unsuitable occupations. This is read in conjunction with Article 42 which lies down that the State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work. Article 39(f) enumerates the importance of protecting children from exploitation and to give them proper opportunities and facilities to develop. These ideas are in consonance with the prohibitions against ‘forced labour’ and employment of children below the age of fourteen years, which have been laid down under Article 23 and 24 respectively. Article 39(f) places an obligation upon the State to provide for the sustenance and education of deprived children.
Article 41 highlights the State’s responsibility to make effective provision for securing the right to work, the right to education and to public assistance in conditions of need. Article 42 also enumerates the State’s obligation to make provision for Maternity Relief. The same is done by way of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 and the Employee’s State Insurance Act, 1948 for factories coming under the latter legislation. Likewise, Article 43 imposes an obligation towards ensuring the provision of a ‘living wage’ in all sectors as well as acceptable conditions of work. Article 43A which was introduced by the 42nd Amendment in 1976, has a direct bearing on labour laws, in so far as it provides that the State shall take steps by suitable legislation or any other means to secure the participation of workers in the management of industrial establishments. The other principles enumerated in Part IV which have a bearing on Labour Laws are Article 45 that talks about the obligation to provide free and compulsory education for the promotion of educational and economic interests of weaker sections and Article 47 that emphasizes the need for improvement in the level of the standard of living and of public health.
Rights of woman employees
There are a number of cases in which the Supreme Court helped to advance the rights of women and strike down those laws or practices that were discriminatory. Though, this may not be true in the case of all women workers. In Ram Bahadur Thakur (p) Ltd. v Chief Inspector of Plantations a woman worker employed in the Pambanar Tea Estate was denied maternity benefit on the grounds that she had actually worked for only 157 days instead of the required 160 days. The Court, however, drew attention to a Supreme Court Decision(1982(2) LLJ 20) wherein the Court held that for purposes of computing maternity benefit all the days including Sundays and rest days which maybe wage less holidays have to be taken into consideration. It also stated that the Maternity Benefit Act would have to be interpreted in such a way as to advance the purpose of the Act therefore upheld the woman worker’s claim. In the All India Bank Employees Association v. I.T, the Supreme Court held, “the right to strike or right to declare lock out may be controlled or restricted by appropriate industrial legislation and the validity of such legislation would have to be tested not with reference to the criteria laid down in clause (4) of article 19 but by totally different considerations.”
The Directive Principles of State Policy are guidelines for the framing of laws by the government. These provisions, set out in Part IV of the Constitution, are not enforceable by the courts, but the principles on which they are based are fundamental guidelines for governance that the State is expected to apply in framing and passing laws. The Minimum Wages Act of 1948 empowers government to fix minimum wages for people working across the economic spectrum. The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 provides for the better protection of consumers. The Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 provides for equal pay for equal work for both men and women. The Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (Universal Rural Employment Programme was launched 2001 to attain the objective of providing gainful employment for the rural poor. The programme was implemented through the Panchayati Raj institutions.
India has gone a long way in implementing most of the Directives contained in Part IV of the Indian Constitution. Statutes on land reforms, nationalization of Banks and insurance Companies, promotion of cottage industries and Labour legislations are concrete examples of implementation of these Directive Principles. Although such criticism has some merit, nevertheless, it is also to be remembered that these directives do serve a purpose, – and a very important one. They lay down the ideal of welfare State, and if properly and judiciously implemented, will lead India towards its goal of an ideal welfare State. Moreover, they will also lend a continuity of policy to the country. Governments may come, and governments may go, but these directives will go on for ever. The relevance of the directive principles outlined in the Indian constitution cannot be ignored. The responsibility of following these guidelines without violating the fundamental rights of citizens lies with the elected government. As Dr. Rajendra Prasad had said in a speech in 1949, “If the people who are elected are capable, and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country.” Despite the potential problems with implementation, these progressive measures have created some attainable targets for our public institutions. If we can successfully expand our social security system to make it more inclusive and reliable, it will indeed be a major achievement for our democracy.