Visiting the Labor Courts of Bombay

ACORN International International

IMG_1060Mumbai   A call from a judge in the labor court of Bombay interrupted our meeting, so I tagged along to get a better sense of the Industrial Court system, which along with a Labour Commissioner and many others managed the labor laws of Mumbai and Maharashtra.   The courts were in East Bandra, not surprisingly less than five minutes from Vinod Shetty’s office, where we had been meeting, and where he was also licensed to practice as an advocate.

            My first hint at what lay before us was his delay in getting out of the car as he tied on a white front piece under his collar in the British tradition that still abided as tradition in the court and fetched a black coat from the back seat of the SUV.  Later instructions included standing if a judge entered the courtroom, not crossing your legs, and god knows what else if we stumbled into a trial.  This was certainly not an appearance before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the United States, though there were many other similarities.

            The judge had been prickly because he was replying to an effort by Vinod to have additional, critical documents entered into the record for the case, after the judge had wanted an end to it.  The judge had decided to allow them, but it had to be right now or never, so we’d come running, feeling fortunate to have been in the neighborhood.  The other twist in the matter turned out to have been that the worker involved had simply decided to add some additional records to the evidence so all of the numbering was off now on the various documents so everyone was in a bit of a snit at this breach of protocol and procedure.

            More interestingly the case involved a transfer.   A popular way that companies try to get rid of union troublemakers it developed was to transfer them to some far flung, remote location where the company had operations elsewhere in the state, hoping to push the worker out.  The burden on the union then was to prove that this transfer was retaliation for union activity, which like similar matters under the NLRB was never an easy climb.  Another frequent bone of contention was whether or not there was effectively a reduction in pay and benefits through the transfer, which, like in the USA, would be discriminatory, so that was also another area of attack.  One problem in transfer cases that judges would often point out, ruefully, was that they were also required without protest to accept transfer anywhere in the jurisdiction, so….

If anything though the procedures in the Bombay labor courts were more burdensome than those in the United States under the NLRB, because everything went before a judge, rather than there being investigators and a hearing before an administrative body appealable to a hearing and decision by an administrative law judge before appeal to the overall board and potentially federal court, if you live long enough.  The Industrial Court meant that everything from the first order went to a judge, and then could be appealable to the Labour Commissioner, and little past that from what I could gather, but all of it, if anything took longer than in the states.  Similar to the US, practice before the Industrial Court did not require a law degree and a union representative could in fact handle the matter, though, also similar to the US, as the proceedings, procedure, and pleadings became more complicated and the company’s lawyers were ever present, lawyers were more privileged in the process. 

The case records and filings were piled on tables and shelves and tied with string and then muslin to keep them together and protect against the elements.  With fans humming and windows open in the hot and often humid climate of Mumbai, nature would not have been allowed to sit long in the judge’s courtroom without inflicting severe damage.  Another lawyer told me that the process of converting to electronic records and record keeping was coming soon, though it would take a while, and of course it is only relatively recently in the USA that briefs before the NLRB can be filed electronically, so there’s no shaming intended here. 

In the meantime an army of clerks were fluttering everywhere to handle the records in our case with four present along with the opposing attorney, our worker, the judge, Vinod, a tea walla, and me, as a fly sitting curiously in the room an observer to the slow, inching forward motion of progress for worker justice in the labor courts of Bombay.