By B. Sivaraman
“The Hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Repeating these words of Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland, the Delhi High Court in its judgment on 4 August 2018 set aside the 14 September 2016 Delhi government notification on minimum wages, which increased the minimum wages in Delhi to Rs. 13,350 to the unskilled, Rs. 14,698 to the semi-skilled and Rs. 16,182 to the skilled. Early media reports, however, were a bit vague and suggested that the court had set aside the notification because “it was a ‘hurried’ decision taken without hearing the employers or employees who would be affected”. Delhi Labour Minister. Gopal Rai said in a statement, “The Delhi government disagrees with the Delhi HC verdict and views with extreme disappointment the erroneous conclusion arrived at by the court, after having heard the matter for almost a year-and-a-half, and after having kept the verdict reserved for many months.”While crosschecking immediately with the Delhi trade union sources, they confirmed that both the labour representatives and employers’ representatives were heard during several rounds of meetings.
So a stream of doubts and dark worries came to mind. Delhi Lt. Governor Anil Baijal had first refused to approve an earlier minimum wage notification because his approval had not been taken to constitute the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee. So the AAP government had to take his permission again and start the same process all over again. And now, are they becoming victims of some judicial obstructionism?
A series of tweets by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal only gave a darker picture of the gravity of the situation: “A large number of daily wage earners in Delhi had started getting increased wages of Rs. 13,500 per month instead of Rs. 9,500 for more than a year. With the HC judgment, suddenly, their wages will be reduced. They will be put under huge financial stress. A huge setback for them.” The CM further claimed that some employers are, in the wake of the HC verdict, planning to recover the increased wage, which they had paid for the last one year. “If that starts happening, it will bring untold miseries to the poor”. The concerns are fine but whose mistake was it?
Going through the judgment carefully immediately made it clear that Gopal Rai was wide off the mark in blaming the court. It became clear that it was not the High Court but his own ministry which was responsible for the quashing and the resulting plight of the workers.
The High Court had set aside the notification on two grounds: firstly, the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee was not constituted as per the law because employer representatives from the scheduled employments for which minimum wages were being fixed were not represented in the Committee as prescribed by Section 5(1)(a) of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Secondly, though the Act had prescribed that one-third members of the committee should be independent members, no independent member was appointed, and in their place government officials were appointed and they were an interested party and also not independent members, since the government too is an employer in some of the scheduled areas of employment.
It is really shocking indeed: is the Delhi Labour Ministry under Rai so incompetent that it could not even constitute a minimum wage advisory committee as per law? Or, did the top bureaucrats in the Labour Department deliberately mislead the political leadership in the ministry and constituted such an unlawful committee only to make AAP leaders look like misfits later? Even conspiracy theories might arise due to the subsequent silence of Kejriwal. Since he claims to preside over morality-based good governance, the minimum thing he could do to pre-empt such theories is to openly admit his government’s mistake and apologise to the workers of Delhi for his government’s bungling.
In fact, the Delhi HC should have passed strictures against his government for inaction, despite Delhi Factory Owners’ Association pointing out this illegality in the very constitution of the committee in one of its earliest sittings. But somehow the court stopped just short of that. And the left trade unions CITU and AICCTU, which had one member each in the committee, should have seen through this folly and warned the government at the outset. Unfortunately, that too did not happen. Far from being biased against labour, the HC has convincingly dismissed employers’ claims that minimum wages in surrounding states are much lower than in Delhi and employers have no paying capacity.
Deprived of thousands of crores of higher wages for a few years, millions of underpaid workers of Delhi seem to be repeating the words of Alice —“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” …Any answer Mr. Kejriwal? (IPA Service)