To exercise rights, can contractual employees approach a permanent employer? Bom HC verdict determines

Bombay High Court: Reiterating the well-settled position that, contractual employees are not the employees of the principal employer, N.B. Suryawanshi, J., held that,

Contractual employees are engaged through contractors, their service conditions are governed by the contracts between them, hence in case of any grievance, they shall approach the contractor and not a principal employer.

Two Primary Questions:

  • Whether a complaint of contractual employees seeking to exercise their rights, as provided under the Maharashtra Industrial Relations Act, 1946 and Bombay Industrial Relations Rules, 1947, is maintainable under the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971?
  • Whether contractual employees can file a complaint under the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971 for challenging the impugned order, which is not passed by the Principal Employer?

Factual Matrix

Petitioner-Original Respondent Company had 806 permanent employees working. Petitioner outsourced its peripheral activities to several contractors and for that purpose registered itself as the principal employer under Section 7 of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970.

Contracts of the petitioner have obtained license under Section 13 of the Act of 1970, there was no registered Trade Union in the local area of the petitioner establishment.

Respondent 16 – Government Labour Officer declared the election programme for conducting elections under Section 28 of the MR Act, for electing 5 representatives of the employees. 301 contractual workers submitted a representation stating to add their names to the voter’s list and to give them a right to vote.

For the above-stated representation, Management informed the contractual workers that the decision in the said regard cannot be taken by the Management and they may approach the Government Labour Officer or the Labour Commissioner. Some contractual workers submitted their representation to the Labour Commissioner seeking inclusion of their names to which the Commissioner rejected while citing the decision in Sunflag Iron & Steel Co. Ltd. v. State of Maharashtra, 2008 III CLR 983 contractual workers are not directly employed by the principal employer, and therefore, their names cannot be included in the voter’s list.

Respondents approached the Industrial Court and stated that the Labour Commissioner has committed unfair labour practice within the meaning of Item 9 o Schedule IV of the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971.

Petitioner opposed the complaint stating the there was no employer and employee relationship between the complainants and the petitioner.

Industrial Court rejected the application but prima facie held that complaint is maintainable and it has jurisdiction to entertain it.

Petitioner submitted that Industrial Court has no power of superintendence over respondent 2 and therefore, the complaint is not maintainable and the same is liable to be rejected summarily.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Settled Legal Position

Contractual Employees are not employees of the principal employer.

In the decision of Supreme Court, Vividh Kamgar Sabha v. Kalyani Steel Ltd., (2001) 2 SCC 381, it was held that “the provisions of MRTU and PULP Act can only be enforced by persons who admittedly are workmen. If there is dispute as to whether the employees are employees of the Company, then that dispute must be first be gotten resolved by raising a dispute before the appropriate forum. It is only after the status as a workmen is established in an appropriate Forum that a complaint could be made under the provisions of MRTU and PULP Act”

In Central Labour Union (Red Flag) Bombay v. Ahemdabad Mfg. and Calico Printing Co. Ltd., 1995 Supp (1) SCC 175, the Supreme Court held that “where the workmen have not been accepted by the Company to be its employees, then no complaint would lie under the MRTU and PULP Act.”

High Court opined that for a complaint to be maintainable under the MRTU and PULP Act, admitted employer and employee relationship is a pre-condition. The provisions of the MRTP and PULP Act can be enforced only after the status of a workman is established before an appropriate forum.

In the present scenario, the contractual employees are the employees of the contractor and not of the petitioner. Hence they are not entitled to file a complaint against the petitioner claiming commission of unfair labour practice.

Therefore, the complaint filed under MRTU and PULP Act by the respondents/contractual employees, is not maintainable.

Under MIR Act, jurisdiction is conferred with the Labour Court and the Industrial Court are conferred with the power to decide the disputes on reference. For enforcing the rights under the MIR Act, forum is provided.

Bench opined that for enforcing the rights available under the MIR Act, a complaint cannot be filed under the MRTU and PULP Act.

Contractual employees are engaged through contractors, their service conditions are governed by the contracts between them. The appointment orders to the contractual employees are not given by the principal employer, but are given by the contractor. They work with the principal employer through contractor, only during the contract period. After the contract period is over, their contractor may enter into a contract with another establishment and shift them to work there. From that view of the matter also, they cannot be treated like permanent employees of the principal employer, and therefore, they cannot claim voting rights at par with the permanent employees.

Since the contractual employees are governed by the contract between contractors, their service conditions, wages, etc. are also governed by the same, hence in case of any grievance they shall approach the contractor and not the principal employer.

Misread and Misconstrued

Industrial Court had ignored the settled legal position that the complaint of unfair labour practice was maintainable only if there was admitted employer and employee relationship between the parties. The contractual employee, being the employee of the contractor and not of the principal employer, cannot file a complaint under the MRTU and PULP Act.

Therefore, Industrial Court’s decision was unsustainable.

While allowing the petition, Court concluded stating that complaint filed under the MRTU and PULP Act by the contractual employees for exercising their rights under the MIR Act is not maintainable and the Industrial Court has no jurisdiction to entertain it. [Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd v. Satish, 2021 SCC OnLine Bom 3003, decided on 20-09-2021]


Advocates before the Court

Shri. R. B. Puranik, Advocate for the Petitioner

Shri. S. B. Dhande, Advocate for the Respondent Nos.2 to 11 and 13 to 15

Ms. T. H. Khan, Asst. G. P. for the Respondent Nos. 16 to 17.

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