It is now no longer compulsory for employers to pay their staff wages during the period of the coronavirus-forced lockdown, even if their establishments remain shut. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs on Sunday issued an order countermanding any orders issued by the National Executive Committee under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, from Monday onward.

The order was part of a notification directing authorities to strictly implement the fourth phase of the lockdown, which commenced on Monday and will end on May 31. The lockdown had begun on March 25 and was extended thrice – on April 14, May 1 and May 17.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said the National Disaster Management Authority had, under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, directed the National Executive Committee to take certain lockdown measures on March 25, April 14 and May 1. It added that the committee, in turn, had issued orders on March 25, March 29, April 14, April 15 and May 1.

“Whereas, save as otherwise provided in the guidelines annexed to this Order, all orders issued by NEC under Section 2(10)(I) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 shall cease to have effect from 18.05.2020,” the home ministry’s notification on Sunday said.

On the contrary, the March 29 notification had said that “all the employers, be it in the industry or the shops and commercial establishments, shall make payment of wages of their workers, at their workplaces, on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown”.

Following the March 29 order, appeals had been filed in the Supreme Court against it, Bar and Bench reported. Ficus Pax, the Karnataka-based lead petitioner company in the case, had challenged the constitutional validity of a March 20 notification by the secretary (labour and employment) and Clause III of the March 29 notification by the home ministry, both of which compelled payment of full wages to workers.

The petitioner argued that the directives were “arbitrary, illegal, irrational, unreasonable and contrary to the provisions of law including Article 14 and Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India.” The court heard the plea on May 15, when the Centre asked for more time to file its response.

Despite the March 29 order making it compulsory for employers to pay wages to their workers, many employees in the private sector have complained of not receiving them. Some have also alleged that they were duped into signing resignation papers. In the absence of work and wages, many labourers have tried to travel back to their hometowns.

However, Sunday’s notification rescinding compulsory payment of wages may not apply uniformly all across India. This is because labour is a subject on the concurrent list as per the Constitution, and states can therefore enact legislation making such payment compulsory despite the home ministry notification.

By Monday, the coronavirus has infected 96,169 people in India, and killed 3,029, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

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