“If society will not admit to woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” So were the thoughts of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female to graduate from medical school in the United States, who not only served as a pioneer for women in the medical profession but also advocated the active recognition of women empowerment as a tool for state empowerment. And one of the most crucial elements of society that is instrumental to the reshaping of a negatively conservative and backward society having a common prejudicial mind set against the liberal equality of women with men; is law. Law is not only the glue that holds society as the Hobbesian thought as defined; it is the scuptor’s tool that converts conception into reality, the conception here being a Welfare State. And the law is what the judges deem it to be, as far India is concerned.
A positive ruling in this direction is the recent Judgement of C.L. Cicily V. Seetharam Textiles Limited, Thrissur decided on 18-03-2015, which saw strict circumventing of state arbitrariness to protect Human Rights.
THE CASE: A REAFFIRMATION OF FAITH IN JUDICIARY?
A petition was filed by the female employees working in Sitaram Textile Mill located at Thrissur. The petition questioned the management’s decision to make female employees work in night shifts. Mr. V.M. Krishna Kumar, the counsel for the petitioner alleged that out of a total three shifts in the company, two shifts occurred during the night and female employees were compelled to work during the night contrary to the provisions of Factories Act, 1948. Further, he brought to the notice of the court that Section 66(1) (b) of Factories Act, 1948 expressly prohibits women from being engaged in a factory between 7pm and 6am. Moreover, a demand was raised to avoid employment of women in the shifts between 3.30 p.m.-12 a.m. and 12-7 a.m. before the managements, but to no avail.
The defendant State Government, represented by counsel P. Vijayamma, contended that the above mentioned 7 p.m. deadline as per the Act was extended until 10pm by it using its discretionary powers. Under the proviso, the State Government can alter the limits provided by notification in the official gazette with respect to any factory or group or class or group of description of factories. A circular to prove the said variation issued by the government, was also produced to this effect. But such exception came with added responsibilities and conditions. They included vehicle facility from workplace to home for women, no work beyond the period nine hours inclusive of rest time and presence of a minimum of five workers including two women in a shift. This meant that the transportation and safety of the woman employee are the responsibility of the employer. The circular dated 16.7.2003 allowed female employees to work until 10 p.m. in industries such as weaving, textiles, printing presses, milk and related products, bakeries, food processing, latex, and electronics.
After the careful consideration of the case at hand, Justice K. Vinod Chandran held that women cannot be made to work beyond 10 p.m. in these industries and strict adherence to the conditions laid down in the circular is a must for employment of women up to 10 p.m. In conclusion, it was held that female employees cannot be asked to work in night shifts between 10pm and 6am and the petition was accordingly dismissed.
The judgement has evoked strong reactions with two staunchly opposite views being taken.
Supporters of the said ruling have claimed it to be progressive and in tune with ideas of equality and empowerment. It is a positive step as it has recognised two major points-women protection and employer’s duty to overlook the safety of his female employees. But, as is the case with almost every issue in India, not all groups are happy. According to a leading NGO, arbitrarily not allowing women to work in night shifts is in itself unconstitutional and irrational. Such a ruling is in fact regressive and partly absolves the police administration of its liability and duty to look to the protection of female employees at night time. Every female, should be given the choice to work or not at timings which are suited to her need. A blanket ban is not and will never be the right course of justice.
Internationally, women rights have grabbed the attention of the world with the vociferous assertion by diverse groups in the global society. A mere reflection of the same can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). International Women’s Day, first started in 1911 has now become a festival in itself, with thousands of people, organization, NGOs and groups celebrating it on March 8 every year. This 2015, the theme of the International Women’s Day was ‘Make it Happen ’ and the recent Judgement by the Kerala High Court seems to be in line with the same for some. For others, it’s an improper move to overcome a pressing problem. In conclusion, it can be said that:-
“Women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and freedom from fear. (Kofi Annan)