ICMR NET: Right to Work

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Article 41 of the Constitution provides that the State shall within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want (article 6 of the ICESCR) . Article 38 states that the state shall strive to promote the welfare of the people and article 43 states it shall endeavor to secure a living wage and a decent standard of life to all workers. One of the contexts in which the problem of enforceability of such a right was posed before the

Supreme Court was of large-scale abolition of posts of village officers in the State of Tamil Nadu in India. In negating the contention that such an abolition of posts would fall foul of the DPSP, the court said:

It is no doubt true that Article 38 and Article 43 of the Constitution insist that the State should endeavour to find sufficient work for the people so that they may put their capacity to work into economic use and earn a fairly good living. But these articles do not mean that everybody should be provided with a job in the civil service of the State and if a person is provided with one he should not be asked to leave it even for a just cause. If it were not so, there would be justification for a small percentage of the population being in Government service and in receipt of regular income and a large majority of them remaining outside with no guaranteed means of living. It would certainly be an ideal state of affairs if work could be found for all the able-bodied men and women and everybody is guaranteed the right to participate in the production of national wealth and to enjoy the fruits thereof. But we are today far away from that goal.

The question whether a person who ceases to be a government servant according to law should be rehabilitated by being given an alternative employment is, as the law stands today, a matter of policy on which the court has no voice (K. Rajendran v. State of Tamil Nadu (1982) . 2 SCC 273, para. 34, p. 294.) . But the court has since then felt freer to interfere even in areas which would have been considered to be in the domain of the policy of the executive. Where the issue was of regularizing the services of a large number of casual (nonpermanent) workers in the posts and telegraphs department of the government, the court has not hesitated to invoke the DPSP to direct such regularization. The explanation was:

Even though the above directive principle may not be enforceable as such by virtue of Article 37 of the Constitution of India, it may be relied upon by the petitioners to show that in the instant case they have been subjected to hostile discrimination. It is urged that the State cannot deny at least the minimum pay in the pay scales of regularly employed workmen even though the Government may not be compelled to extend all the benefits enjoyed by regularly recruited employees. We are of the view that such denial amounts to exploitation of labour. The Government cannot take advantage of its dominant position, and compel any worker to work even as a casual labourer on starvation wages. It may be that the casual labourer has agreed to work on such low wages. That he has done because he has no other choice. It is poverty that has driven him to that state. The Government should be a model employer. We are of the view that on the facts and in the circumstances of this case the classification of employees into regularly recruited employees and casual employees for the purpose of paying less than the minimum pay payable to employees in the corresponding regular cadres particularly in the lowest rungs of the department where the pay scales are the lowest is not tenable … It is true that all these rights cannot be extended simultaneously. But they do indicate the socialist goal. The degree of achievement in this direction depends upon the economic resources, willingness of the people to produce and more than all the existence of industrial peace throughout the country. Of those rights the question of security of work is of utmost importance.

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (1984) , 3 SCC 161 a PIL by an NGO highlighted the deplorable condition of bonded laborers in a quarry in Haryana, not very far from the Supreme Court. A host of protective and welfare-oriented labor legislation, including the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act and the Minimum Wages Act, were being observed in the breach. In giving extensive directions to the state government to enable it to discharge its constitutional obligation towards the bonded laborers, the court said: The right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39 and Article 41 and 42 and at the least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of workers, men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief. These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity and no State has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these basic essentials. Since the Directive Principles of State Policy contained in clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39, Articles 41 and 42 are not enforceable in a court of law, it may not be possible to compel the State through the judicial process to make provision by statutory enactment or executive fiat for ensuring these basic essentials which go to make up a life of human dignity, but where legislation is already enacted by the State providing these basic requirements to the workmen and thus investing their right to live with basic human dignity, with concrete reality and content, the State can certainly be obligated to ensure observance of such legislation, for inaction on the part of the State in securing implementation of such legislation would amount to denial of the right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21, more so in the context of Article 256 which provides that the executive power of every State shall be so exercised as to ensure compliance with the laws made by Parliament and any existing laws which apply in that State.

Thus the court converted what seemed a non-justiciable issue into a justiciable one by invoking the wide sweep of the enforceable article 21. More recently, the court performed a similar exercise when, in the context of articles 21 and 42, it evolved legally binding guidelines to deal with the problems of sexual harassment of women at the work place (Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997) 6 SCC 241.) . The right of workmen to be heard at the stage of winding up of a company was a contentious issue. In a bench of five judges that heard the case the judges that constituted the majority that upheld the right were three. The justification for the right was traced to the newly inserted article 43 − A, which asked the state to take suitable steps to secure participation of workers in management. The court observed: It is therefore idle to contend 32 years after coming into force of the Constitution and particularly after the introduction of article 43 − A in the Constitution that the workers should have no voice in the determination of the question whether the enterprises should continue to run or be shut down under an order of the court.

It would indeed be strange that the workers who have contributed to the building of the enterprise as a centre of economic power should have no right to be heard when it is sought to demolish that centre of economic power National Textile Workers Union v. P. R. Ramakrishnan (1983) 1 SCC 249.

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