Headlong in to confusion: The Bhuwalka Steel judgment

The Bhuwalka Steel judgment regarding Mathadi [Headload workers engaged mainly in loading and unloading operations among other activities] has caused much consternation in the industry, particularly the manufacturing industry. We interviewed Mr. PM Mantri, Advisor to Stanrose Mafatlal and Past President of NIPM, and whose knowledge and insights on Industrial Relations are well recognised by experts, on the subject.

Q 1: “What are the implications? Can you please highlight the concerns?”

PM Mantri : My views in brief on the effect of Supreme Court decision in the case of Bhuwalka Steel Industries (2010 I CLR 272) are:

The decision, which, incidentally, is very well written and is interesting to read, has created confusion mainly because the law on the issue who is “unprotected worker” as per Mathadi [Headload workers] Act, as was understood by all concerned, including judiciary, well over 30 years has been unsettled. It has resulted into a conflict between Mathadi Act and Contract Act, so far as mathadi type workers are concerned. The employers in manufacturing industries engaging (genuine) contract workers for mathadi type of work will have to comply with both the Acts. This will create complications in the sense that “contract workers” coverable by Mathadi Act will be eligible to get “best of both” benefits. Consequently, there may arise disparity in the benefits available to “coverable” workers and “non-coverable” workers in a scheduled employment. Further, if there is a union of such workers, it will lend one more dimension to the problem.

Further, the employers concerned will have to maintain two sets of records for such “coverable” workers, one under Contract Act and the other under Mathadi Act. They will have to deal with two sets of Inspectors for the same set of “coverable” workers.
Q 2: To what extent these concerns are real? Is there any way out for the employers?

PM Mantri : Yes, the concerns of employers are real. Individual employers, however, will hardly be able to do anything in the matter. It will be the responsibility of employers’ organizations which will have to agitate against this situation for prevailing upon the Government to amend Mathadi Act suitably in regard to definition of the term “unprotected worker”. I understand that efforts are being made in this direction. I also understand that a Writ Petition has been or is being filed in Bombay High Court on this issue.

Q 3: Is NIPM planning to make representation to Government?

PM Mantri : NIPM, at its Executive Committee meeting to be held today evening, has this item on its agenda.

Q 4: The experience of Headload workers in Kerala and now Mathadis in Mumbai is far from satisfactory. Would you recommend scrapping of the Mathadi Act, and if so what alternative?

PM Mantri : I would not recommend scraping of Mathadi Act. However, the entire enforcement machinery under the Act including Mathadi Board need to be thoroughly overhauled from top to bottom. There are very serious allegations against them.

Q 5: A recent article in Frontline covered the Supreme Court decision in the case of Harjinder Singh vs Punjab State Warehousing Corporation argued that the Supreme Court has made stringent observations against its own tendency to compromise the interests of workers. Do you see emergence of the adversarial industrial relations again?

PM Mantri : My analysis is that pendulum of Supreme Court decisions which had swung to one side in the era of Justice Mr. Krishna Iyer, Justice Mr. D. A. Desai, Justice Mr. P. B. Sawant and similar others swung subsequently to another end during the last decade. Let us now hope that with the Supreme Court decision in the case of Harjinder Singh, it will gradually come to a center in the near future.

I do not feel it will lead to emergence of adversarial industrial relations. Much can be said on this aspect itself, but let us keep it for a later stage.

Thanks Mr. Mantri,