The Calcutta High Court on Thursday held that prisoners in the state of West Bengal are not to be governed by the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and the rates fixed under such provisions by the appropriate government as minimum wages.
"Prison service cannot exactly be equated with normal service, outside incarceration. There are certain distinctly discerning features in the former, as compared to the latter", observed the Single Bench.
Expounding these differences, the Judge said that first, prison service, if under rigorous imprisonment, is not only compulsory for the prisoner, but is mandatorily to be provided by the authorities as well. Therefore, it is not the convenience or requirement of the authorities which prompts the generation of such service, in which case the service would necessarily be associated with a reciprocal duty cast on the employer to remunerate the employee according to the general statute governing the field, that is, the Minimum Wages Act.
The employment is not an option exercised by the employer as per its needs but a mandate under the statute. Since the employer as well as the employee are both forced to provide and undertake such work statutorily, the entitlement of the employee and corresponding duty cast upon the employer cannot be on the same footing as an ordinary employment. Even prisoners undergoing simple, as opposed to rigorous, imprisonment have the option to choose work; if opted for, the jail authority/employer is bound to provide such work and does not have a choice to refuse such request, even when law does not mandate such work as a necessary corollary of the imprisonment.
Thus, in cases of simple imprisonment, the rights are lopsided, the employee having the option to work or not but the employer being under statutory compulsion to provide such work, once the option crystallizes into an actual job upon a prisoner under simple imprisonment choosing it. This element of compulsion on the employer, associated with prison service, somewhat negates the bargaining power of the employer, as opposed to other employments, consequentially diluting the obligation of employers to pay the minimum rates of wages prescribed for employees under the Minimum Wages Act, which obligation is intended to set off the negative effect of such bargaining power in the hands of employers.
Secondly, the judgment reads, that since there is a special statute, that is, the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992, governing the incidents of prison service in the state of West Bengal, which provides for the remuneration of prisoners and working hours etc., the same overrides the general service law as far as prison service is concerned. As, in the present case, committees were duly formed from time to time by the State Government for determination of rates of wages, service conditions, etc. in prison as per the law, which have already framed such rules in accordance with law, the quanta of which rates have not been challenged on the ground of being arbitrary or unreasonably low, there is no scope for application of the general statute operating in the field, that is, the MW Act.
"Thirdly, the prisoners, during incarceration, are provided with various facilities, such as food, shelter, medical facilities, security, etc. as well by the prison authorities. Thus, it is sufficiently justiciable to provide a reasonable rate of wages, as fixed by statutory committees, to a prisoner, which rate is arrived at upon deliberations involving concerned sections of society and social bodies and on examination of the total scenario, as well as taking into account reasonable deductions for such facilities from wages. The rates need not necessarily be equal to minimum wages as provided by the general law on the subject, because the extra facilities enjoyed by prisoners do not form a mandatory constituent of the general minimum wage structure/work conditions in employments outside prisons", ruled the Single Judge.
Further, the Court reflected that irrespective of the technical qualifications of prisoners otherwise, which might not have fetched them a similar job outside jails, the prison authorities are bound to broadly classify the competence of the prisoners under skilled, unskilled and/or other categories for the purpose of assigning work to them, giving weight to the prisoners' aptitude and skill. Therefore, the prisoners need not have the edge to compete and qualify for jobs, as services outside prisons, but are roughly assessed on the basis of their skills and enjoy the mandate of statutes to be assigned some job or the other as per their competence and inclination, without having to undergo the process of strict competition required for services outside prisons. The working hours of prisoners may also be less than employees other than prisoners.
"Although the term "wages" is not defined specifically in the 1992 Act, Sections 55 and 56 thereof provide sufficient elaboration as regards the rates of wages and the working hours of prisoners, hence excluding the need to import, as an external aid of interpretation, the concept of wages as envisaged under the MW Act", noted the Court.
It was, However, of the view that the logic, that prison service is penal in nature, does not justify the prisoners being paid less than their entitlement, since there cannot be double punishment, both in the form of imprisonment itself – whether rigorous or simple – and getting less wages than reasonable compensation for their work and rehabilitation, overlooking the additional angle of compensation to the victim being provided from a common fund by deducting a portion from the prisoners' wages.
"The distilled proposition of all the cited judgments is that adequate and reasonable payment should be made to prisoners for their service for their rehabilitation and service itself, deducting the expenses for their food, clothing and other amenities provided to them. Deductions for the purpose of creating a victim compensation fund have to be limited, since the prisoner commits a crime, for most offences, against the State, the State having failed to protect the victim from the crime in the first place. As such, the State cannot avoid the responsibility of contributing a major portion of the victim compensation funds too", the bench opined.
But the question raised, as to the applicability of the rates fixed under the MW Act being applicable to prison service, is answered in the negative.
Click Here To Download Judgment