New Delhi: The Supreme Court Friday sought response from the Centre on a plea filed by two civil rights activists seeking enforcement of fundamental right to life for migrant workers and payment of wages to them as they have been left without work or food following the 21-day nationwide lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic.
A bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta had issued notice to Centre and posted the matter for further hearing on April 7, advocate Prashant Bhushan, who appeared for petitioners Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj through video conferencing said.
The plea said that fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution needs to be enforced for migrant workers who are severely affected by the lockdown ordered by the government on March 24.
The order for which no prior intimation was given, created a panic across the country and led to the instantaneous loss of jobs and wages of millions of migrant workers employed in establishments across India or self-employed as street vendors, rickshaw pullers, domestic house helps, petty job workers, etc.
This led to the large scale exodus of these migrant workers to their home towns, the plea said.
The petition, filed through Bhushan, said that the sudden announcement of lockdown led to migrant workers crowding in large numbers of many thousands at bus terminals, railway stations and inter-state borders to find their way home, potentially exposing them to the virus and escalating the risk of its spread.
It said that as news started emerging of this large scale exodus of migrant workers and the threat it posed by disrupting public health measures of social distancing to curb the spread of the virus, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order dated March 29, for restriction of movement of migrants’.
This order asks employer of the migrant workers to pay their wages during the lockdown and their landlords not to charge them rent for this period. It also asks the State Governments to make arrangements for food and shelter for these workers,” it said.
However, the petitioner submitted: “This order is not the correct or adequate response to the large scale exodus of migrant workers.
It added that as directed in the order of MHA, it is also unrealistic to expect the small establishments employing migrant workers to pay them their wages at their place of work.
Due to the lockdown the workers cannot travel to their place of work and many of these establishments are small businesses that have been forced to shut down and hence employers will not be able to pay these wages. Besides majority of these migrant workers are self-employed.
“The order ignores the harsh realities that workers have to persistently face in cities that is further compounded when a lockdown order deprives them of their job, daily wages and hence means of survival, thus violating their Article 21 rights, the plea said.
The activists said the lockdown has precipitated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis especially among the class of migrant workers and it is the central and state governments that have to take adequate measures in accordance with National and State plans drawn out under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, under the guidance of the advisory committees they are mandated to constitute, to deal with this epidemic.
The current lockdown has cast an unprecedented economic hardship on daily wage earners. It is submitted that the Central and State Authorities have the necessary power and consequential duty to direct that all daily wage earners be provided with their wages at the place where they are currently present under the lockdown.
The government is mandated under various statutes to keep a record of migrant workers whether employed in establishments or self-employed, the petition said.
It added that if in violation of the necessary statutes, the governments have not maintained records of such workers, it would be necessary to immediately put in place a mechanism for workers to self-identify and self-attest based on which the government can release wages.
The petition sought direction to the central and state governments to jointly and severally ensure payments of wages/ minimum wages to all the migrant workers within a week, whether employed by other establishments, contractors or self-employed, as they are unable to work and earn wages, during the period of the lockdown.
It also sought direction to them to immediately activate National and State Advisory Committees of experts in the field of disaster management and public health and prepare national and state disaster management plans for dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic, taking into account all relevant aspects, mitigation measure, their possible costs and consequences as required under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
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