Industrial Disputes Act: Burden to prove ‘workman’ status is on employee, not management, rules Gauhati High Court

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The Gauhati High Court recently held that the burden to prove that one is a ‘workman’ covered by the Industrial Disputes Act, lies on the employee making such a claim and not the management of the organisation [Inudstrial Cooperative Bank Ltd and anr vs State of Assam and ors.].

Justice Suman Shyam made the observation while setting aside a set aside a ₹36 lakh award granted by the labour court in favour of an employee and against a bank.

“Once an objection as to the maintainability of the reference was raised by the management by taking the plea that the employee was not a workman, regardless of whether any written statement is filed on not, it was incumbent upon the learned Labour Court to record a finding on the above aspect of the matter based on the materials produced by the employee. The burden to prove that the employee is a workman for the purpose of section 2 (s) would be upon the employee and not the Management,” the High Court held.

In this case, the bench also noted that the labour court had not examined the question of whether the applicant, who was a management-level employee, was a “workman” under the Act.

Hence, the matter was remanded back to the labour court for a fresh decision, preferably within six months.

The High Court was dealing with a plea filed by the Industrial Cooperative Bank Limited challenging a labour court’s ex-parte order which had set aside the decision to terminate an employee accused of involvement in financial irregularities.

The labour court had called for the reinstatement of the employee, who was earlier in charge of administration and human resources. The order had also directed the payment of back wages and service benefits in arrears to the employee

The bank had not appeared before the labour court after its objection to the maintainability of the proceedings had been dismissed, and since its Managing Director at the time was embroiled in criminal proceedings.

The High Court noted that it is well-settled that issues of jurisdiction go into the heart of legal matters and, therefore, can be raised at any stage of proceedings.

The judge further noted that the labour court had not recorded proper reasons as to why the order dismissing the employee from service was not as per law, and that it had gone about in a ‘perfunctory’ manner.

He added that the labour court will have to decide on whether the domestic enquiry against the employee was fair and proper.

“If however, the Labour court does not find any infirmity in the proceedings of the domestic enquiry, then the order of penalty can only be examined on the touch stone of proportionality of the punishment,” the High Court further observed.

The bank’s appeal was, ultimately, allowed, and the compensation amount earlier ordered to be paid by the labour court was also set aside.

Advocates Bedanta Kaushik and Suman Das appeared for the bank. Advocate S Chakraborty represented the employee.

Advocate A Talukdar appeared for the State-authorities.

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