Unemployment due to COVID-19 – A threat to Right to Life

Introduction

The current global scenario in the wake of the pandemic has led to large scale unemployment, with the jobs plummeting by the day. Nearly 430 million enterprises globally have been hit hard due to the lockdown.[1] Some of the worst-hit sectors are aviation, retails, production, tourism, entertainment and realty. According to UN agencies, more than 1.6 billion have suffered due to loss of jobs and subsequent unemployment. In India too, the figures for unemployment are appalling. To mitigate the liquidity crisis caused due to the pandemic, the employers slashing down their cost by job cuts and reduced payrolls. With the means to earn their bread surrounded by the perils of unemployment, this pandemic strikes right at the heart of the Indian Constitution- the fundamental right to life and liberty.

Right to work as an inherent attribute of right to Life

To live a life of dignity, the most essential element among others is the right to work. The right to work has carved its way into the list of fundamental rights, though not through the written texts of the Constitution, but the judicial interpretation of the same. Textually, the right to work is a DPSP under Part IV of the Constitution, making it unenforceable in the Court of Law. Through thorough scrutiny, the Supreme Court in the celebrated case of Olga Tellis held that right to work is an indispensable part of Article 21 of the Constitution.[2] It elucidated that depriving an individual of his right to livelihood is a serious impediment of his right to life since making a living is paramount to lead a meaningful life. In subsequent cases also, the Supreme Court concretized this opinion by stating that an individual cannot be removed from a job based on arbitrary and unreasonable causes, since the same would threaten their very means of survival.

The Pandemic and Infringement of Article 21

As per the recent reports of the think tank CMIE, the unemployment in India has touched an unprecedented high of 27.1%, with around 114 million losing their jobs due to the COVID19 outbreak. With their means of livelihood shattered, they are left with no income and are victims of hunger and endless suffering. This has threatened their minimal necessities of food, shelter, and healthcare, which is encompassed within the ambit of article 21 of the constitution.[3]

It is trite law that the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing, and shelter over the head and, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings constitute the bare minimum expression of the human self, which is embedded in one’s right to live.[4] International treaties and conventions such as UDHR and ICESCR have also recognized the right to work as an inalienable human right. Hence, speedy and effective action is required to prevent the transgression of this right.

Whilst it is important to note that the state cannot be sued for not providing adequate means of livelihood to individuals, it is equally material to recognize that under Directive Principles of State Policies, the state is entrusted to ensure that the citizens’ right to adequate means of livelihood is not jeopardized. Furthermore, certain rights are enforceable not just against the state, but also against private individuals. To ensure that these rights are not transgressed is a collective responsibility, and the burden is not merely on the State to look out for its citizens in this regard. Hence, even private players shall contribute to safeguarding this right.

Steps taken by other nations to mitigate the plight of the unemployed

  1. The Canadian Government has come up with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) wherein tax exemptions are being given to the individuals who have lost their income due to loss of jobs or salary cuts.
  2. The UK has announced the payment of 80% of wages to employees who are suspended during the pandemic. This was also extended to the self-employed people. Although the massive subsidies have failed to curb the ever-increasing unemployment rates, it has managed to provide some relief to those affected by unemployment.
  3. In Singapore, the Jobs Support Scheme has been extended to benefit around 1.9 Million employees. Under this scheme, the government will co-fund the wages to reduce the stress on the companies. This will also help in preventing job-cuts to some extent.

Measures that can be taken

The wheels of the economy have been punctured due to a dip in production and manufacturing. This has reduced the cash flow in the business, making the payment of wages and salaries difficult. However, there is a dire need to come up with constructive policies in order to ensure job safety without overburdening the companies with the costs when the cash flow is stagnant.

The government has reduced the Cash Reserve Ratio to 3% in order to maximise lending and cash inflow in the economy. To help the unskilled workforce, continuous assessment of skills in demand is being made by a specially constituted body, based on which training will be imparted to them. However, more concrete steps are required to be taken in order to prevent unemployment across different sectors. Some of the suggested ways are listed below.

  1. The taxes due for payment in the current accounting year shall be made payable in the next three accounting years. This flexibility shall be given only to those employers who are not terminating their employees on the grounds of cash crunch. Such a policy will serve a two-fold measure: It will ensure that the employer has cash in hand and will also make sure that the government treasury does not dry out due in the long run.
  2. There is a crying need for India to reframe its Unemployment Insurance Policies. Presently, the only active policy is the Rajiv Gandhi Shramik Kalyan Yojana which facilitates payment of 50% of wages per month provided that individual had paid a premium for 3 years. Further, the allowance is given only for a period of 1 year from the date of unemployment. In the urban sector, however, there is an absence of any unemployment scheme whatsoever. Hence, there is a need to relax the stringent requirements and develop new schemes to ensure that the benefits are reaped by the majority in case of emergencies like the one at hand.
  3. The revised dates for filing tax returns have certainly given solace to the taxpayers, but it does not completely solve the problem of dearth of liquidity that is engulfing the businesses. There is a need to provide further tax rebates and restructure the fiscal policies, and for a start, we can follow the footsteps of the Canadian Government.
  4. The management shall reduce external spending. A daily spending review shall be initiated and all expenses shall go through the desks of top executives to cut corners. This can prevent the need to terminate employees due to a shortage of cash inflow.
  5. To liberate the corporates from their existing burden, the government provides interest subsidies to the sectors that have received the worst blows, like MSMEs. This will enable them to restructure their finances and organize them in a manner that may not require job cuts.
  6. To deal with the cash crunch, the employers can make use of credit notes to pay the employees. These notes can be used in lieu of currency as a credit instrument and will be redeemable at banks and other institutions.

Conclusion

The current state of rapid unemployment strikes right at the heart of our constitution- our fundamental right to live. However, it is imperative to understand that the State is not the only body that is responsible for safeguarding this right. Even private entities shall ensure that the basic means of livelihood are not snatched from them. The right to work has always been understood in the light of humane working conditions and equality of treatment at the workplace. However, the current crisis reflects another aspect- the very right to work and earn an income for survival. This right needs to be safeguarded by the means of effective policies and concerted efforts by both public and private players.

[1]Nearly half of global workforce at risk as job losses increase due to COVID-19: UN labour agency, UN News, (28 /04/20) available at  https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1062792 last seen on 7 May 2020.

[2] Olga Tellis v. BMC, AIR 1986 SC 18.

[3] Chameli Singh v. the State of UP, 1995 Supp(6) SCR 827.

[4] Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi, AIR 1981 SCC 746.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Ashika Jain

ashika jain

Ashika is a second-year BBA LLB student from Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.

Lakshay Garg

lakshay garg

Lakshay Garg is a third-year BCom LLB student from Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.

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