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Workers – Not To Be Toyed With ! – By Mukesh Jhangiani

                                                                                                            December 01, ‎2011

Labour law concerns the inequality of bargaini...

Labour law concerns the inequality of bargaining power between employers and workers (Photo: Wikipedia)

Workers – Not To Be Toyed With !

By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India

New Delhi (UNI) – A retiring High Court Chief Justice is paid a High Court Judge’s pension. The mistake is rectified– but not before a 15 year court battle.

An Indian Institute of Technology professor invokes his Right to Information– to know why his gratuity is withheld.

After a Japanese executive kicks a worker and tosses the turban of another one, 3,000 employees at a Gurgaon plant form a union– prompting dismissals. Protest brings brutal thrashing from Haryana police in full view of news cameras.

Fired en masse, 362 union-led newspaper employees spend 20 months in Delhi High Court without relief– only to start afresh before a labour tribunal.

Tens of thousands of farmers persuaded to borrow for modern tools, chemicals and seed incur a crop of debt they cannot cope with– and end their lives.

Hired on merit, a scheduled tribe teacher harassed at work goes to the Central Administrative Tribunal, the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court– her battle and hounding cut short by her death in the premature delivery of a stillborn.

Those are some glimpses of what India’s so-called strong labour laws are doing for– and to– some of its officially counted 400 million workforce Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls ‘toiling masses’.

Labour and Employment Ministry officials say India has 154 labour laws to ensure welfare of roughly 30 million organised workers and 370 million unorganised workers, including some 250 million farmers and farm hands.

Set up 36 years ago to research labour issues, V V Giri National Labour Institute has yet to produce a comprehensive study of workplace disputes, their causes and outcomes– that might have shown the way to reform.

As in instances cited at the outset, those guilty of making life miserable for some of India’s workmen and women seldom suffer personal consequences under the law.

That, experts acknowledge, defeats right there a key purpose of any legal system– to deter crime by instilling the fear of law in potential offenders.

“Where we fail is in punishing our crooks or offenders,” says former Calcutta High Court Chief Justice D S Tewatia, stressing the urgency of reforms to remedy the situation.

Knowing, for instance, that the worst consequence of denying employees’ wages is having to pay after 10 or 15 years, employers may take such recourse capriciously at the slightest pretext or even without any.

Quite unlike elsewhere in the civilised world, employers in India do not face jail or hefty punitive damages that may make them behave.

In the United States, for instance, former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling was given more than 24 years in prison for fraud and conspiracy involving more than US40 billion dollars debt, thousands of lost livelihoods and duped clients.

Before sentencing, an outraged Enron employee of 17 years, Kevin Hyatt, had asked the judge to ‘send a message’ to other corporate executives by giving Skilling the maximum sentence.

About labour legislation in India, a Western expert observes with an almost audible smirk, ”these laws are of little broad significance. They have long been circumvented in practice in most areas of the economy.”

Such laws as Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970, Industrial Disputes Act 1947, Factories Act 1948 and Minimum Wages Act 1948 provide imprisonment for violators.

But strangely the option to invoke those provisions is controlled by government officials.

Headquarters of the International Labour Organ...

International Labour Organisation – Presiding (United Nations Photo)

For any harassment they inflict on employees, employers cannot be prosecuted on those counts without express sanction of labour inspectors or commissioners.

Here are some examples:

— Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923 section 18A(2): No prosecution under this section shall be instituted except by or with the previous sanction of a Commissioner.

— Industrial Disputes Act 1947 Section 34(1): No Court shall take cognisance of any offence punishable under this Act or of the abetment of any such offence, save on complaint made by or under the authority of the appropriate government.

How that works out on the ground was indicated when Lok Sabha Members Sunil Khan, Basudeb Acharia, Amitava Nandy and Gurudas Das Gupta drew attention to labour law violations some years ago.

The Labour Ministry gave data on the violations handled in 2003-04 and 2004-05 by the Central Industrial Relations Machinery headed by the Chief Labour Commissioner.

Of 9,826 and 9,538 disputes received under the IDA, for instance, 3,533 and 3,583 were settled while ”FOC– failure of conciliation–reports (were) submitted” in 4,276 and 2,743 disputes respectively.

The Ministry gave no account of how many violators, if any, went to jail.

“The Ministry and its machinery should be protecting labour– not employers,” was how Acharia, a Communist Marxist MP from Bankura, West Bengal, put it.

Asked then if he knew of any case in which an industrialist has had to go behind bars for breaking labour laws, Acharia said, “not one.”

As it is, given poverty and unemployment on one hand and the state of law and courts obtaining on the other, employees find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The reverse appears to hold for affluent industrialists. Matters are filed in courts where they take years before it is time for appeals and more years.

How workmen or women survive without wages or relief may be hard to grasp for authorities not familiar with such hardship.

Thus it is that workers lose jobs while employers keep running industries and establishments– unmindful of consequences not in evidence. There is little to deter employers’ misconduct.

A published source says even West Bengal, the left bastion, saw 274 lockouts in 2000, more than half– 143– declared to reduce workforce on “the pretext of loss of economic viability.”

Short of sound laws and implementation, half measures abound.

The Institute of Company Secretaries of India proposed some time ago requiring independent professional assurance from practising company secretaries on labour law compliance.

But critics stress the importance of sound labour laws and effective enforcement.

Experts point out how professional auditors have for decades approved accounts without raising an eyebrow– while Swiss numbered accounts of Indians have grown.

Given such facts or data, it may appear natural that workers representatives agitate to rectify things.

Strangely, it is employers’ associations which have been demanding greater facility to hire and fire employees, a Labour Ministry statement noted some time ago.

“The employers have been vehemently pressing for labour reforms on the plea that these are necessary for making Indian industry globally competitive and for attracting more of foreign direct investment.

“The existing laws, it is contended by employers, slow down growth and job creation. They say that under the existing labour laws the churning of new skills is slower; companies lose cost cutting flexibility and ability to bounce out of recession quickly.

“The employers further contend that Labour Market will become more flexible with the amendments; more workers can be hired legitimately and can ask for better benefits including better work conditions, safety standards, welfare measures and health benefits,” the statement said.

Some of these arguments are backed by such institutions as the World Bank.

But critics ask how governments reconcile promises to workers of more jobs with bigger pay packets and better work conditions with promises held out to foreign investors of abundant cheap and skilled labour.

English: Official Portrait released by the Off...

Labour & Employment Minister Mallikarjun Kharge (Photo: Wikipedia)

At a conference in New Delhi, WB experts spoke of better work contracts.

Asked who will fix a contract if an employer breaks it, the experts promptly replied: the Courts.

Asked if it was fair for employees to have to go through years of litigation for wages of their work, the experts conceded the incongruity of the situation and spoke of judicial reforms.

They argued that reforms would follow in the legal system as pressure builds up. But that, critics say, is like putting the cart before the horse, especially considering some recent trends in labour-related adjudication and judicial orders.

On the other hand, experts say it is important to note that the associations seeking to change the rules are made up of industrialists who are themselves often subsidised by taxpayers in any number of ways.

Apart from receiving concessions in tax and costs of land and other public resources, many have been notorious in building up lakhs of crores of rupees of India’s Non Performing Assets– a euphemism for unrepaid loans.

Unlike tens of thousands of debt-ridden farmers who end their life unable to face the ignominy, no one appears to have heard of NPA defaulters making such choices.

Experts agree that the government must strike a balance. Citizens must not only be proclaimed to be equal, they must also be treated as equals. Just as workers must work, so must employers manage properly and pay wages.

Any failures or abuses, including manipulation of unions, must lead to consequences, they say.

Laws and fora must be put in place or firmed up to deliver justice in time– not at leisure, experts say.

UNI MJ TBA RP 1454

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Snags in Hiring More Judges To Dispense Justice ! – By Mukesh Jhangiani

                                                                                                    November 3, 2002

Snags in Hiring More Judges To Dispense Justice !

By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India

New Delhi (UNI) – Notwithstanding Supreme Court directives, States claim they have ”serious difficulties” in raising the strength of judges to dispense justice to the wronged, whose ranks continue to swell.

Informed sources say the matter also figured at the Chief Ministers’ conference in the past fortnight and the Centre has been requested to make ”necessary submissions” before the apex court on financial constraints in implementing its judgement.

The court judgement on March 21 favoured a ten per cent annual increase in judges strength over the next five years, which is estimated by Law and Justice Ministry officials as likely to cost thousands of crores of Rupees.
Considering population, India is rated by experts to have among the lowest number of judges in the world, only 10.5 per million people in India as against 50.9 in Britain, 57.7 in Australia, 75.2 in Canada, and 107 in the United States.
The never-ending pendencies and all too frequent adjournments– which delay and proverbially deny justice– symptomise the teetering state of the country’s judicial system. It may have unseated a prime minister but it is known to routinely let common criminals– blue collar and white collar– slip away.
Top law professionals acknowledge that the shockingly low– 6.5 per cent– conviction rate in serious crimes tells potential law-breakers they have a 93.5 per cent chance of getting away.
”That,” says Prof Satyaranjan Sathe, Honorary Director of Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, a Pune-based private research group, ”is one of our biggest worries– there is not much out there to deter a violator.”
— January 2, 1975: An explosion at a public function at Samastipur, Bihar kills India’s Railways Minister. The case is transferred to nine judges, statements of two of seven accused have been recorded and key witnesses dropped– as untraceable or not having come forward.
— January 10, 1999: A reckless driver in the Capital mows down six human lives in a night. The accused is pursuing Business Administration studies abroad while the trial continues.
— July 25, 2001: Driving home from Parliament during lunch break, a Member is shot dead in broad daylight as she arrives at her official residence barely a kilometre away. Eleven men charged are in jail, awaiting trial.
— February 23, 2002: A co-accused in shooting a bartender in May 2000 for not serving a drink is arrested as prime accused in the murder of a young man who dances with his sister at a wedding. The first trial is on. The accused is in judicial custody in the second matter, charges for which are yet to be framed.
Not just thugs or criminals, even professionals, administrators or businessmen are not afraid to break the law.
— August 21, 1989: Political foes allegedly plant a report in leading newspapers about huge offshore accounts supposedly held by a future Prime Minister. Leading politicians are named conspirators, but not one is convicted in 13 years. The simplest thing might have been to start by nailing those who planted the story. As an on line critic put it, the Press ”played a nefarious role in broadcasting these forgeries” and should bring out these names.
— March 12, 1993: Explosions rock several areas in Mumbai, killing 300, with RDX smuggled into the country by bribing a customs official Rs 20 lakhs to look away. The trial continues.
— August 8, 1995: A judge orders Delhi Municipal Corporation to compensate survivors of an employee who died after 15 years of abuse, and deduct the payment from the salary of ”the responsible officer.” Lawyers say the system is lazy and ill-equipped to punish officers in such cases; Taxpayers usually end up paying. No lessons are learnt.
— November 19, 1999: An industrialist owning more than one companies is allowed by a court to shut down one of them– a soft drink plant– reportedly after denying wages to hundreds of workers for eight months. Fired employees are in courts seeking statutory wages.
— January 4, 2000: A list made public unmasks thousands of big-spending industrialists defaulting on huge borrowings from State-owned banks, creating non-performing assets now touching Rs 110,000 crore. Cases continue, at further expense to taxpayers.
Examples abound. Years pass before trials take place, giving the guilty ample time to manipulate evidence or break witnesses. After a while memories may fade anyway, making testimonies easier to shake.
Critics argue that such a legal system is itself the best bet for an offender trying to escape punishment.
Even in India’s trumpeted labour laws, for instance, ”deterrent punishment is usually not provided. But even where it is provided, Courts tend to take a lenient view of offences,” said a veteran labour administrator, requesting anonymity.
Labour tribunals, the Government official went on, may help employees against small employers, but ”when we face big employers, we are stuck in technicalities that consume years.”
The chilling reality was spelt out matter-of-factly by an employer to an employee considering legal recourse over years of harassment. ”Remember, I have the organisation behind me, I won’t even have to go to Court. Our lawyers will do that. I will just hand over the file to them. You, on the other hand, will be on your own– whether it takes five years or seven years or longer!”
Lawyers with decades of experience say such attitudes are not altogether uncommon, nor such threats empty.
Critics say India’s judicial system is in a mess, with cases going on and on for years, giving little respite to the wronged and plenty of leeway to wrongers. The issue has often figured in Parliament.
India’s senior and subordinate judiciaries between them have less than 13,000 officers ranging from Munsifs to the Chief Justice and almost 24 million cases pending.
More than a fourth of them– 26.7 per cent– or 5.3 million cases have been in courts longer than three years, Home Ministry officials say.
Worse. More than half a million cases have been pending for over a decade– the bulk in the High Courts of Allahabad, 2,88,472; Calcutta, 1,27,190; Punjab and Haryana, 49,951; Bombay, 28,131; and the Capital, 35,865.
But the figures do not even begin to tell the impact on millions of lives at the receiving end of such dispensation.
Forty-eight years after a complainant filed a petition, Madhya Pradesh High Court was yet to deliver the verdict. Bihar High Court had a 47-year-old case pending, Calcutta High Court, a 43-year-old case, and Rajasthan High Court, a 42-year-old case pending.
Judgements in hundreds of cases are being delivered long after the hearing is over. At one count, Madras High Court alone had judgements pending in 566 cases, 229 of them six months after the hearing. A far cry, indeed, from what victims need !
”The consumer of justice,” India’s Chief Justice once observed, ”wants unpolluted, expeditious and inexpensive justice. In the absence of it, instead of taking recourse to law, he may be tempted to take the law in his own hands.”
In lay man’s terms: One should be able to walk into a court and walk out with a verdict within at most a few months.
Knowing that justice would be swift and punishment severe should deter perhaps a large many potential violators, reducing burden on courts and the exchequer and ending the prevailing cynicism.
Currently, experts fault mainly two key factors– complex and inefficacious laws and procedures and shortage of judges and courts.
They say Indian laws, procedures and practices tend to be cumbersome and ineffective.
The 93-year-old Code of Civil Procedures just amended seeks to compress the time frame for disposal of all civil cases within one year by setting a time limit for every stage of litigation and allowing at most three adjournments.
But it is yet to be seen how the changes work in practice.
On reforms in criminal justice system, a committee set up by the Home Ministry in November 2000 has yet to submit its findings. Its Chairman, V S Malimath, a retired judge who once served as a High Court Chief Justice in Karnataka and then in Kerala, has been busy the last two years writing effective procedures to punish crime.
The Judge recently told a conference of professionals that people ”have by and large lost confidence in the criminal justice system. Wherever I go people ask:
— How is it that when everyone around knows that the accused has committed the offence, the Courts find reason to acquit him?
— Why is it that when one Court finds the accused guilty, the High Court says he is not, and the Supreme Court says he is guilty?
— Why is it that it takes so many years, sometimes decades to dispose of criminal cases?
— How is it that the rich and the powerful who commit serious crimes are seldom punished?”
The paucity of courts is another key problem, experts say. And it’s compounded by vacancies. India’s 21 High Courts with a strength of nearly 650 judges have almost 150 vacancies and 12,000 plus subordinate courts have 1,684 vacancies. Almost a third of labour courts also remain unfilled.
Fifteen years ago, the Law Commission of India in its report titled ‘Manpower Planning in Judiciary: A Blueprint’ recommended raising the strength to at least 50 judges per million citizens.
As the Commission put it, India was persisting in a pattern of conscious judicial under-staffing followed by the British rulers in keeping with their colonial interests.
The findings were shelved. The case arrears kept mounting.
Some eighteen months ago, the authorities launched so-called Fast Track Courts to deal with long pending cases of heinous crimes and those involving undertrials in prison, the idea being that no one should be in prison longer than necessary.
More than 800 Fast Track Courts now working are reported to have cleared nearly 64,000 cases.
Experts say they see no reason why fast Track Courts should not cover undertrials on bail– to put them where they belong. They say the move has either not been considered or has been dismissed not to inconvenience those resourceful enough to obtain bail in heinous offences.
Imagine the effect, if the high and mighty on bail found guilty were sent behind bars– not walking free.
Seven months ago, on March 21, the apex court ordered a phased increase in the strength of judges over the next five years.
In mid-July, the Union Government announced it had ”initiated necessary action” to increase the strength of Judges in Union Territories in compliance with the judgement.
The first sign of trouble, sources say, came at a meeting convened by Finance Minister Jaswant Singh on September seven at which State Finance Ministers voiced ”serious difficulties regarding the Constitutional, financial and administrative issues involved in implementing the Supreme Court judgement of 21-3-2002.”
On an average, a court costs Rs 25 lakhs to set up– Rs 15 lakhs to build the court room, Rs five lakh to furnish it and install computers and another Rs five lakhs to build judges’ residence– and Rs 11 lakhs a year to run.
Officials estimate that the cost of adding the numbers of judges as per the apex court directive may exceed Rs 10,000 crores.
The State Finance Ministers expressed difficulties pertaining to pay scales and other service conditions of subordinate judiciary ”including increase in judge strength and all other matters related thereto.”
The States’ financial woes and fears of going ”broke” trying to implement the judgement, were mentioned by Law and Justice Minister K Jana Krishnamurthi at a news conference on the eve of the Chief Ministers’ conference. He indicated that ”we are having talks” with the States authorities after which the apex court would be approached for directions.
On October 18, the Chief Ministers’ conference ratified the Finance Ministers’ findings without making any counter proposals, leaving it to the Centre to find a cure.
According to sources, Senior officials in the Home Ministry are giving final touches to proposals setting afresh ”additional judge strength required as per pendency and workload,” taking into account existing judicial vacancies.
Sources say the proposals estimate that the number of additional judges needed on the basis of the pendency and the judges’ average case disposal rate is 1,314. Cost estimate: Rs 700 crores.
UNI MJ RP GC1010

Snags in Hiring More Judges To Dispense Justice ! – By Mukesh Jhangiani – November 3, 2002