Payment of Wages during Pandemic

‘If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich’, quoted John F. Kennedy years before an epidemic like Covid-19 could have even been forecasted.

Starting from the Plague, a bacteria led pandemic to the Spanish Flu caused by a virus in 1918, the world has seen an invisible enemy mongering fear among the people. Though the epidemics did not change the patterns in people’s reactions but it outbreaks have certainly taught us about social distancing and responsibility. The response to the current pandemic, Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID 19) has been no different. The current situation where the Government has been repeatedly asking people to be selfish about their loved ones and stay indoors is undoubtedly a decision in the public welfare as it stands as the only way to fight the issue. This infection with symptoms is frightening and can kill people in large numbers as evident in the developed countries but the epidemic is more threatening when thought of people it might affect without symptoms.

Looking back, the plague epidemic was certainly a major turning point in India’s public health system. The principles introduced were new then and vaccines developed turned the history of hospitalization in the country. But when it first came in Mumbai, there were only Social Service leagues and other voluntary organizations which did the work of supplying food and medicine to the needy. Thus, there was impression of hope and being taken care of even when the situation turned helpless.

The society is divided into sections and it is not unknown to anyone of the country. Even though the upper class can claim money not being important more than happiness, the lower class does not even know the meaning of happiness if there is no penny in the pocket. The lockdown period has pushed the lower class people, working under ‘no work, no pay’ policy to the extreme points of their lives so much that the deaths due to hunger can compete with the numbers of deaths due to the virus after a couple of months. The situation is similar to the Plague in a lot of ways, maybe it is time to change the principles and policies of the wage workers and mark it in the history once again.

Coronavirus pandemic is not a depression yet but it is a recession already. The country can easily fall back into a temporary economic crisis and technical point of actions can prevent permanent scars of depression. Compelling the payment of wages to the daily wage workers can be a measure that can instantly transform the social safety of the nation as once these workers lay off; there might be irreparable damages to the entire nation’s productive capacity.

The government has issued directions to the employers to pay wages on mere humanitarian grounds and, it is not only for the permanent workmen but for the contract workers as well. The Disaster Management Act, 2005 or the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 which specifically came into force after the epidemic in Mumbai does not guarantee any such direction to be in compliance with the statutory law. However, Central and State governments can take its measures accordingly and it is backed by the provisions. 

Though it has taken time but the Government has come up with ideas to deal with the situation. The government has strictly advised to support the country by paying wages without any consequential deduction in wages for this period. The direction is issued particularly for the casual or contractual workers. On non-payment, the employees can drive down morally to combat their fight. On such kind of a scene, India, as a country, would lose even if it manages to fight the virus.

But the circular is only an ‘advisory’ and has not been issued under any law, ultimately making it not binding on any person. As dealt in the judgment of Narendra Kumar Maheshwari v Union of India that any policy does not take the place of law. Even the legislation under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 does not prohibit any employer from terminating employees or to vary their terms of service. But it does mention securing employees as it requires them to be paid salaries in the course of business. There also lies a major difference between the terms, employees and workmen as pointed out in Dhrangadhra Chemical works Limited v State of Saurashtra. The matter stands important since a workman is entitled to retrenchment as well as other benefits unlike the employers irrespective of whether temporary or permanent. It is important to note that ‘natural calamity’ is not particularly defined in the Act and can be claimed to fall under the ambit of it.  

The migrants are stranded on roadways due to the current situation but hands of employers are tied as well and even though some might think but everyone cannot afford the same. Such a crisis is itself not compensated under loan forbearance.

In such a situation, the solution can be to adopt the idea of common law ‘lay off’ concept to pay 50% of wages so that their daily needs are at least met and also so that it can be done for a larger period to a bigger audience. The Government can also secure by adopting Canada’s plan to subsidize certain requirements and by giving them a privileged position by offering different schemes.

It is time that the country understands that we are all in this together. Without one section the other cannot sustain for long. Very evidently, when John F. Kennedy quoted, he might not have forecasted viruses or pandemics but he knew the world required to stand together for development.