Calcutta High Court Decides the Applicability of the Minimum Wages Act for the Payment Wages for Prisoners

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The Criminal Justice System in India is reformative. The adopted method for reforming prisoners is giving them a choice to work. The prison authorities pay them if they choose to work. A common question that arises is what is the right amount of wages? The High Court explains how the Minimum Wages Act cannot apply to prisoners’ wages.

Facts of the Case

The on-going COVID-19 situation ensured the suspension of labour laws in various fields. It is with this background, the present case tries to analyse the situation at hand. In the year 2013, the session’s court in Calcutta convicted a man for killing his wife. He served a sentence of imprisonment for 5 years. During the 5 years, he completed the tasks assigned to him. On the day of his release, the prison authorities handed him his payment. He received ₹73,112. Unhappy with the amount received, he filed a writ petition at the Calcutta High Court.

Contentions of the Petitioner

The petitioner’s counsel presented an excellent case. There is a reduction in the petitioner’s wages. It is violating sections 54 and 55 of the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992. The term “services” in question falls within the purview of scheduled employment. The concept of Scheduled Employment is in relation to the Minimum Wages Act.

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In this case, the state becomes the employer while the prisoner becomes the employee. While examining the sections, the counsel also pointed out another important point. He stated that the term “wages” is not defined in the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992. Due to the fact of not having a definition, we depend on the Minimum Wages Act.

There were many Supreme Court judgements cited to explain the same. One of the famous judgments quoted in the People’s Union for Democratic Rights & Ors v. Union of India. The Supreme Court explained the concept of forced labour in this case. The counsel stated that his client also fell within the purview of forced labour. He reasoned with the definition Supreme Court had provided in the judgement. In the State of Gujarat and Another v. Hon’ble High Court of Gujarat, the Supreme Court instructed the prison authorities. The instructions stated to provide prisoners with reasonable wages.

Contentions of the Respondent 

In this case, the State of West Bengal is the respondent. The Counsel representing them pointed out the following in his arguments. He argued that “prisoners” or “prison service” do not fall within the Schedule of Minimum Wages act.

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For defining the term “employer” and “employee” the counsel referred to section 2 (e) of the act. The definition requires the act as “Scheduled Employment”. Yet, the schedule of the act does not recognize the work of prisoners as scheduled employment.  The opposing counsel refers to the judgment from the same case as the petitioner. He states that the Supreme Court ordered for only “equal wages”.

The Court’s Interpretation

The Court pointed out that a prisoner made to work is a matter of authority and not of choice. The question arises with the right to work. The reason stated here is the lopsided distribution. In the case of the prisoner, has the choice to work. The employer has to provide employment irrespective of the choice. This lopsided distribution is what changes the nature of employment provided to prisoners. Hence this tends to dilute the obligations imposed by the Minimum Wages act.

When there is a specific law addressing the situation, it will override the general law. In this case, the 1992 Act is the specific law focusing on prisoner’s services and payment. Hence it ought to override the general law that is the Minimum Wages Act.

The prison authority provides food, shelter and amenities during the imprisonment. Thus, there is justification in giving the power to decide the wages provided. In conclusion, on the lines of arbitrariness, the petitioner can file a petition. In case there is a petition, this judgement will not operate as res judicata. Res Judicata is a doctrine that bars a person from filing the same case again, as it would make it redundant. Keeping this in mind, the Calcutta High Court has cleared the applicability.

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