The Supreme Court, on Friday, directed the Centre to ensure that the cess collected under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 is properly utilized for the welfare of such workers.
The Court is hearing a PIL filed by an NGO, ‘National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour’, which has alleged that statutory cess levied from real estate firms for the welfare of construction workers is not being utilized properly, in the absence of a mechanism to identify the beneficiaries and extend such benefits to them.
The Petition has further prayed for formulation of rules and regulations relating to the health, safety and welfare of such workers.
During the hearing on Friday, the Court was informed by Ms. M. Sathiyavathy, Secretary of the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment, that a Monitoring Committee was set up some time in 2015 for effective implementation of the Act. The first meeting of this Committee, she submitted, was held in November, 2015, after which seven meetings have been convened.
Ms. Sathiyavathy further submitted that the number of registered construction workers has increased from 2.15 crores to about 2.8 crores. The collection of cess was also submitted to have increased from about Rs.25,477 crores to about Rs.37,482 crores. Besides, the utilization of this amount has also admittedly increased from about Rs.5,371 crores to about Rs.9,491 crores.
Ms. Sathiyavathy was then asked to ensure that the "benefits of the collected cess is passed on to the construction workers who are primarily migrant workers and most, if not all of them, are indigent and extremely poor."
At this juncture, the Petitioners drew the Court's attention to certain areas that need to be looked into carefully by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. These include ESI coverage, education of the children of construction workers, pension, shelter and health benefits for them.
The Secretary of the Ministry of Labour then stepped in to inform the Court about the schemes that are already in place for benefit of these workers and also about a national portal that is under construction, for the benefit of the NGOs.
"Since we are concerned with a huge number of construction workers and we are also concerned with very huge amounts that have been collected (learned counsel for the petitioner says that the interest component has not been included in this amount), we are of the view that the entire matter should be looked at in a positive and constructive manner by the Government so that the benefits can be passed on to the construction workers who are the real beneficiaries of the statute," the Bench comprising Justice M.B. Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta thereafter observed.
The Secretary of the Labour Ministry agreed to call a meeting of the Monitoring Committee consisting of the Labour Secretaries of all the States and Union Territories within one month. Representing the Petitioner, Mr. Colin Gonsalves volunteered to prepare a detailed note for the meeting within ten days.
Mr. Gonsalves as well as Mr. R. Srinivasan, Consultant with the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General were requested to attend the meeting, as they had assisted the Court in the matter. Ms. Anitha Shenoy, who was representing National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), was also directed to attend the meeting, along with the Member-Secretary and Director of NALSA, "in view of the efforts that have also been put in by NALSA".
The minutes of this meeting have been directed to be prepared soon after the meeting and will have to be circulated to all, including the non-official participants. The minutes are expected to be placed on record within two weeks after its conclusion.
The matter has now been directed to be listed on 17 January.