In a victory for the contractual workforce, who had found the gates of their depot of Central Warehousing Corporation in Delhi closed following the substitution of their labour supplying agency, the Delhi High Court on Monday, May 17, directed the statutory body to ensure the reinstatement of the workers.
On January 6 this year, over 300 loading workers at the inland clearance depot (ICD) of the government-owned warehouse storage and handling service provider at East Delhi’s Patparganj were left in the lurch as the contracting agency was replaced, prompting them to knock the doors of the HC.
CWC, which boasts of being a Schedule ‘A’-Mini Ratna enterprise, is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. With 415 warehouses and 25 ICDs across the country, it provides logistical support to the agriculture sector, including warehousing activities that have to do with the storage of foodgrains, or other notified commodities.
“The judgement will act as a milestone in the struggle of all contract workers who are involved in work of perennial nature,” said the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) – Delhi committee in a statement on Monday, even as CWC Delhi’s senior official maintained, while speaking to NewsClick, that the statutory body will challenge the order before a divisional bench.
In December last year, the erstwhile contractor namely, “Suman Forwarding Agency Private Limited” was replaced by “Rahul Roadways” at CWC’s Patparganj depot, following which the latter refused to reinstate the previous contractual workforce. On January 13, in an interim order, the HC directed the new contractor “to maintain status quo,” with regards to the aggrieved workforce till further orders.
Also read: Central Warehousing Corporation Workers Left in Lurch After Contractor Changed, Trade Union to the Rescue
The workmen, represented by advocate Anuj Aggarwal, filed a clarificatory application in the court on January 20 claiming that the new contractor hasn’t allowed the workers “to resume duty”, while asking the court to “clarify” its previous order. The workers last worked with CWC as their “principle employer” till January 5, the application said.
On the other hand, CWC in its reply to the workmen’s clarificatory application on February 8 told the court that there is “no relationship of employer and employee” between it and the workers, and that the latter were “employed” by the former labour contractor.
On Monday, after recording responses of all the parties in the case, the HC modified its interim order. The order, “is modified to the extent that CWC would have to bear the burden of ensuring that the workmen who were on the rolls of SFPL (Suman Forwarding Agency Private Limited) up until 05.01.2021, continue to be deployed at its concerned establishment… on the same terms and conditions…,” the judgment said.
The workmen on Monday argued that since a dispute concerning the regularisation of workers is currently pending before the Central Government Industrial Tribunal (CGIT), Section 33 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, must be invoked. As per the said provision, during the pendency of a conciliation proceeding the employer must not “alter” the conditions of workmen’s services.
A section of workers, having worked with CWC for 30-35 years under different contractors, approached the tribunal in 2015 arguing that the duties performed by them are of “perennial” nature and thus demanded regularisation.
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Employment of contract worker is prohibited under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970.
The HC on Monday directed the CWC to comply with the order till a final decision is reached in pending proceedings before the tribunal.
Advocate Aggarwal spoke to NewsClick on Tuesday about the significance of the judgement. “It is a very positive judgment for the contract workforce in the country. It specifically sets a precedence for invoking Section 33 of the ID Act (of 1947) in the cases of those on contractual basis as well,” he said.
It would help to legally challenge the “many illegal retrenchment” of contract workers in establishments across the country, he added.
NewsClick also approached a senior official at CWC’s Delhi office who claimed that it is a “wrong order.” “We will challenge it before the divisional bench of the HC,” he said, stressing that it is not the “responsibility of CWC to maintain status quo”.
Anurag Saxena, general secretary of CITU-Delhi, welcomed the judgement. Asked about what will be done in case the workers are not reinstated even now, he said, “The union will keep its fight on for the rights of these workers through legal remedies – and also through movements.”
Barsati, 59, a contractual worker among those who had approached the court earlier, however, remained worried on Tuesday. “Since January, our monthly wages have stopped. There are no permanent jobs – many of us took to daily wage work then and now. But even that has stopped now due to the lockdown,” he said.
Commenting on Monday’s judgment, he said, “It is good that the judgment came in our favour,” adding that the workers will be relieved only after their reinstatement. “Even if that happens, the struggle doesn’t stop there… what we need is regular jobs,” Barsati lamented.