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The Fruits of Labour Should Be Equal

By: Mahafrin Sidhwa

In the recent case of State of Punjab & Ors v. Jagjit Singh & Ors, the Supreme Court (SC) has emphasized the importance of securing equality of remuneration to workers whether temporary or permanent, an issue which has presently not been addressed by labour law legislations in India. This judgment has upheld the constitutional principle of Right to Equality, i.e., “equal pay for equal work” as enshrined in the Preamble and Articles 14, 16 and 39(d) of the Constitution of India.

The SC was hearing a batch of writ petitions filed by daily wagers working as pump operators, fitters, helpers, drivers, plumbers, chowkidars, et al. challenging the judgment of a Single Judge of the High Court of Punjab & Haryana in Rajinder Singh & Ors. Vs. State of Punjab & Ors.  The Single Judge held that temporary employees were not entitled to minimum wages as was being paid to similarly placed permanent employees.

The SC set aside the Single Judge judgment and ruled that in a welfare state an employee engaged for the same work cannot be paid less than another who performs the same duties and responsibilities. SC went on to add that such a distinction was demeaning and struck at the very foundation of human dignity. Accordingly, the SC held that all the concerned temporary employees will be entitled to draw wages at the same scale as regular/permanent workers.

This judgment has underlined the need for amending the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 (“the Contract Labour Act”), the Equal Remunerations Act, 1976 and the Trade Unions Act 1926 to keep temporary and permanent workers on the same footing. However, implementation of such amendments would pose a major challenge for the Central Government.

The Contract Labour Act was enacted with the objective of preventing exploitation of contract labour and ensuring better work conditions. However, the enactment does not provide any yardstick by which a contract labourer, being a temporary worker, can be treated on par with regular/permanent workers. Further, the Contract Labour Act fails to provide any parameters for the fixing of pay-scale of such workers such that they are not exploited by their employers. On the other hand, the Equal Remuneration Act places great emphasis on equality of pay among men and women and no discrimination at the time of recruitment. However, the enactment doesn’t take note of “equal pay for equal work” from the point of temporary and permanent workers, be it male or female. 

Further, temporary workers at present are unable to join  a trade union or form their own trade union under the Trade Unions Act 1926. Most trade unions in India are reluctant to grant membership to contract labourers, which deprives them the opportunity to put forth their collective interests. This is notwithstanding the fact that the definition of ‘workman’ under the enactment includes all persons employed in trade or industry whether or not in the employment of the employer, which could presumably include temporary employees as well. A suitable modification that specifically includes a temporary workman in the definition of the term ‘workman’ would help temporary/ ad-hoc/contract labour to address their needs with employers.

This SC Judgment has set the stage for the Central Government to address the concerns of temporary/ ad-hoc/contract labour staff doing same or similar work as permanent staff under the guise of a short term contract.

If the Central Government enacts suitable amendments to these labour legislations, employers should be able to attract more temporary/ad-hoc/contract labour staff. This would, however, come at the cost of business flexibility and cost efficiency.

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