Seenath Beevi v. State of Kerala

2003 (3) KLT 788
Download Judgment: English
Country: India
Region: Asia
Year: 2003
Court: High Court - Kerala
Health Topics: Hospitals, Occupational health
Human Rights: Right to favorable working conditions, Right to health, Right to life
Tags: Public hospitals, Safe working conditions

The Petitioner, Seenath Beevi, was the head nurse at a government hospital in Kerala. She worked 14 hours a day, six days a week because shift duties were not available at the hospital. The government had introduced a “3 shift system” in some hospitals with the aim of limiting working hours to 8 hours per day. The government had failed to extend the system to other hospitals. A writ petition was filed in the Kerala High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India (original writ jurisdiction of High Courts). The petitioner prayed to the Court to issue directions to the government to enforce the “3 shift system” in all government hospitals and to declare the rule requiring 14 hour work shifts unconstitutional.

As to the link between rationalization of working hours and right to health, the Court held that regulated working hours were needed for “humane” and “reasonable” working conditions. Relying on Consumer Education and Research Center v. Union of India, ((1995) 1 SCR 626), the Court held that the State was obliged to create and ensure healthy working conditions. It further held that the right to health of a worker was a fundamental right under Article 21and was necessary to make the life of a workman meaningful. The Court also held that all employers, government or otherwise, had an obligation under Article 21 to provide just and humane working conditions. In this regard, the Court relied on the international standard of an eight hour day established under the International Labour Organizations’ Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919.

As to whether the judiciary had any authority to lay down working conditions, the Court held that the primary responsibility of prescribing working conditions lay with the government. The Court, however, went on to hold that in this particular case the government had “in principle” already acknowledged the need for a “3 shift system”. It therefore went on to hold that the government could not infinitely delay the implementation of the rule. Not implementing the new system, according to the Court, would be a violation of the right to life.

The Court also held that shortage of funds could not be allowed as an excuse for infringing fundamental rights. It, therefore, held the 14 hours a day, 6 days consecutively in a week rule illegal and unconstitutional. It also directed the government to implement the “3 shift system” in “all the hospitals.”

“[I]n the light of the Constitutional mandate under Article 21 no employer whether private, Government or quasi-Government has got the unfettered freedom to prescribe conditions of work imposing duty hours exceeding certain limits.” Para. 16.

“[S]hortage of funds rather financial difficulty is the only contention urged by the respondent-State as a defence against the non-implementation of 3 shift duty system in the Government Hospitals. I am unable to accept the above contention as justifiable reason to perpetuate the illegality and infringement of the fundamental and the inalienable right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. It is the Constitutional obligation of the State to find out the required funds to preserve such fundamental rights.” Para. 23.