Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Brajnagar Coal Mines Workers's Union wins against cruelty of Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd, Coal India Ltd

Supreme Court's bench of Justices Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha and Sandeep Mehta upeold the judgment of the Orissa High Court and the Industrial Tribunal, Rourkela, Odisha directing the regularization of workers and payment of wages in Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd v. Brajnagar Coal Mines Workers's Union. The Tribunal's judgement was passed on May 23, 2002. It establishes the victory of Brajnagar Coal Mines Workers's Union against Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd. The Court's order reads:'we are of the opinion that there is no merit in the appeals filed by the appellant. This is a case of wrongful denial of employment and regularization, for no fault of the workmen and therefore, there will be no order restricting their wages."

Drawing on Article 136 of the Constitution of India, Supreme Court entertained the Special leave petition. Under Article 136, "the Supreme Court may, in its discretion, grant special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any court or tribunal in the territory of India" under its Civil Appellate Jurisdiction.

The High Court and the Tribunal has held that the workers were engaged in a work which was "regular and perennial in nature". Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd, Coal India Ltd, the appellant filed a Writ Petition (C) numbered 2002/2002 before the Orissa High Court. The High Court dismissed the writ petition and "affirmed the findings of the Tribunal." It also dismissed the Review Petition bearing No. 77/2017 filed by the Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd, Coal India Ltd. 

Notably, in its order dated November 11, 2021, Orissa High Court's bench of Chief Justice Dr. S. Muralidhar and Justice K.R. Mohapatra asserted that "No ground is made out for review of the order dated 11th January, 2017 passed in W.P.(C) No.2002 of 2002. The review petition is accordingly dismissed."

Prior to this High Court's bench of Justices S.C.Parija and K.R. Mohapatra heard the writ petition of the Management of Mahanadi Coal Field Limited, Ib Valley area, Brajarajnagar assailing the award dated May 23, 2002 by Government Industrial Tribunal-cum-Labour Court, Bhubaneswar (CGIT) in Tr. Industrial Dispute Case No.27 of 2001. It passed the dismissal order saying, "we find no reason as to why 13 out of 32 numbers of Workmen should be discriminated, when 19 of them have already been regularized pursuant to an out of Court settlement, during pendency of the reference before the learned CGIT, more particularly when the jobs they were discharging were regular and permanent in nature. For the reasons as aforestated, we do not find any infirmity in the impugned award so as to warrant any interference.".

The Workers' Union asserted that the list in the industrial reference dated May 20, 1997 showed that workers were arbitrarily deprived of regularization, wherein certain workers from the bunker and the plant were left out of the settlement without any reason. It is also argued that the work in the railway siding was perennial and regular in nature, similar to the works in the bunker. As there was no resolution of the claim of regularization of similarly placed workers, they pursued the remedy under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. These workers suffered for no fault of theirs and an order of regularization must naturally lead to grant of consequential back wages. The Assistant Labour Commissioner took up the entire cause which  culminated in the settlement dated April 5, 997. In the settlement, Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd, Coal India Ltd had "agreed to regularize 19 contractors" out of 32 workers. The Union Government invoked the power of reference to refer the matter to the Tribunal to adjudicate the interest of all the 32 workers. The Tribunal was naturally bound by the reference to consider the claim of all the 32 workers.

The Court observed, "What appeals to us is that the 32 workers who entered the service of the appellant in 1984, continued uninterruptedly till 1994, when the respondent-union sought their permanence.....It is proved that the remaining workers stand on the same footing as the regularized employees, and they were wrongly not made part of the settlement. This is established by the Tribunal, by examining the nature of work undertaken by the first set of 19 workmen and that of the other 13 workmen....The Tribunal finally came to the conclusion that the nature of the duties performed by the 13 workmen are perennial in nature. The appellant has failed to establish any distinction between the two sets of workers. The Tribunal was, therefore, justified in answering the reference and returning the finding that they hold the same status as the regularized employees." 

The Court also observed, "We are also not impressed with the artificial distinction which the appellant sought to bring about between the 19 workers who were regularized and the 13 workers who were left out. The evidence on record discloses that, of the total 32 workmen, 19 workers worked in the bunker, 6 worked in the Coal Handling Plant, and 7 worked on the railway siding. However, of the 19 workers who were regularized, 16 worked in the bunker, and 3 worked in the Coal Handling Plant. However, 3 workers from the same bunker, 3 workers from the same Coal Handling Plant and again 7 workers from the same railway siding were not regularized." It concurred with the findings of the Tribunal. The Tribunal had "come to a conclusion that the denial of regularization of the 13 workmen is wholly unjustified."

The Court concluded, "With respect to payment of backwages, we are of the opinion that the workmen will be entitled to backwages as observed by the Industrial Tribunal. However, taking into account, the long-drawn litigation affecting the workmen as well as the appellant in equal measure and taking into account the public interest, we confine the backwages to be calculated from the decision of the Tribunal dated 23.05.2002. This is the only modification in the order of the Tribunal, and as was affirmed by the judgment of the High Court. For the reasons stated above, the appeals arising out of the final judgment and order of the High Court in W.P. (C) No. 2002/2002 and order in Review Petition No. 77/2017 are dismissed with the direction that the concerned workmen shall be entitled to backwages with effect from 23.05.2002." The judgement dated March 12, 2024 was authored by Justice Sri Narasimha.

Is it fair on the part of the Court to modify Tribunal's judgement and confine "the backwages to be calculated from the decision of the Tribunal dated 23.05.2002." Why backwages should not be calculated from the outset? It is it normal to refrain from imposing cost on Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd for denying adequate wages for such a long time? 

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