Kochi: The Kerala High Court is examining how every case of an accidental death or injury or even murder in the course of employment can be brought to the notice of the Commissioners and Industrial Tribunals under the Employees Compensation Act so that they can exercise their powers to provide monetary relief to the victims' families.
A bench of Justices K Vinod Chandran and Ziyad Rahman A A on its own initiated a petition on the issue after noting the plight of night watchmen who are generally "ill-equipped and ill-paid" for the job they do and if they are killed during the course of employment, their families receive some compensation only if the accused are convicted.
The court said that such "frail" men, often armed only with a mosquito coil, are seen "ineffectively" guarding shops and ATMs at night, while the owners slumber in their opulent homes.
When such a night watchman is killed on the job and the criminal case ends in acquittal, "the family of the murdered man, often already thrown into the streets, have no perceivable means of getting a compensation", the court said.
The bench was of the opinion that such circumstances would give rise to valid proceedings for compensation under the Employees Compensation Act 1923 for "accidental death" of the employee.
It also noted that the Commissioners appointed under the Act in the various Industrial Tribunals in the state do not have the administrative machinery to initiate proceedings or even get information of "such accidental death" having occurred.
The bench was also of the view that not only in the case of security guards falling prey to dacoits and robbers, in every case where there is an accidental death or injury in the course of employment there is no machinery in place for the matter to be brought to the notice of the notified Commissioners for the purpose of invoking the powers under the Act.
"Considering the fact that there is no effective machinery or infrastructure provided to the Industrial Tribunals or the notified Commissioners under the Act, we are of the opinion that the Kerala State Legal Services Authority(KSLSA) could take an effective, proactive role insofar as the initiation of proceedings through the District Legal Services Authorities and Taluk Legal Services Authorities.
"However, they would also require information as to any incidents of death in the course of employment including incidents similar to that of the security guard. The information could only be supplied by the police, who first take cognizance of such offences whether it be a murder or an accidental death," the court said.
For issuing suitable directions in the matter under consideration, the court impleaded the state government, KSLSA and the industrial tribunals at Kollam, Alappuzha, Idukki, Palakkad and Kozhikode as parties.
The plight of the night watchmen first came to the attention of the high court while allowing a batch of criminal appeals in which the appellants had challenged their conviction by a sessions court for the offences of robbery and house trespass at a jewellery store and the murder of a night watchman deployed there whose body was dumped in a nearby well.
Their appeals were allowed by the high court as there was no evidence against the accused.
The bench said that when one of the appellants had sought return of the amounts deposited in court towards compensation to be awarded to the victim's family, it "set us thinking about the plight of the sad lot of 'night watchmen' who are generally ill-equipped and ill-paid".
"We observed that often they stake their lives to offer nothing more than a sense of security to those whose property they watch over," the high court said.