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The Minimum Wages Act, 1948 is a land mark in the history of labour legislation in the country. In a country like ours where the number of unemployed persons is very large, the legislators realized that if the rule of market is allowed to prevail, it could be difficult to prevent sweating or exploitation of labour through payment of unduly low wage. It was to prevent this position that the Act was enacted and specific provisions were made for determining minimum wages in respect of the scheduled employments.
Once a minimum wages is fixed according to the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act, it is not open to the employer to plead his inability to pay the said wages to his employees. In other words, once the minimum wage is determined under the Act, the obligation of the employer to pay the said wage is absolute. The appropriate Government under the Act can fix minimum rates of wages payable to employees employed in the employments included in schedule I and schedule II. Here, the appropriate Government means the Central or the State Government as specified in the Act.
The appropriate Government has also been empowered to include any employment in the schedules. The original schedule contains 19 employments. The West Bengal Government has so far included 42 employments in the schedule.
As per provisions of the Act (Sec 3, 4 & 11) the Minimum Wage may be fixed at "time rate", "piece rate", "guaranteed time rate" and "overtime rate". The minimum wage may consist of basic wage, and an allowance linked to cost of living index. The minimum wage shall be paid in cash, although payment of wages wholly or partly in kind may be allowed in particular cases. The Government can also fix the number of hours of work, provide for weekly day of rest, payment of remuneration in respect of such days of rest, payment of overtime wages, and payment for work on a day of rest at a rate equal to overtime rate. Section 2(3) of the Act provides that in fixing or revising minimum rates of wages, different minimum rates of wages may be fixed for (a) different scheduled employments, (b) different classes of work in the same scheduled employment, (c) adult, adolescent, children and apprentices or (d) different localities. Such minimum wage may be fixed by hour, by the day, by the month or any other period as may be prescribed.
The Act provides for the appointment of Committees and sub-Committees to hold enquiries and advise the appropriate Government in fixing or revising the minimum rates of wages and to appoint an Advisory Board for the purpose of co-ordinating the work of the Committees and sub-committees and also to advise the appropriate Government generally in the matter of fixing and revising the minimum rate of wages. The rates may be revised at such intervals not exceeding five years as the appropriate Government thinks fit. All these bodies are tripartite in composition, consisting of persons nominated by the appropriate Government, persons representing the employers and employees concerned in equal number and independent persons not exceeding one third of the total number of members. One independent person has to be appointed as the Chairman by the appropriate Government. (Sec. 5, 7, 8 & 9).
The Act provides for two different procedures for fixation and revision of minimum rates of wages. Either of them, the "Committee method" or the "Notification method" may be followed. In the first method the appropriate Government may appoint Committees or sub-committees to hold enquires and to advise it in respect of such fixation or revision. Based on the advice of the Committees the appropriate Government may fix or revise the rates by a notification in the Official Gazette. The other method requires the appropriate Govt. to publish its proposal by a notification in the Official Gazette for information of persons likely to be affected and specify a date not less than two months from the date of notification on which the proposal will be considered. The Government then considers the representations received before the specified date, consults the Advisory Board and fixes or revises the rate by notification in the Official Gazette. The State Government has fixed minimum wages in 55 employments out of which notifications in respect of a few employments have been quashed by Honourable Calcutta High Court.