Supreme Court of India, B. Shah v. Presiding Officer of the Labour Court, 12 October 1977, Case No. 1978 AIR 12 1978 SCR (1) 701

Maternity protection
Role of International Law:
Use of international law as a guide for interpreting domestic law
Type of instruments used:

Ratified treaty1 

Maternity leave/ Maternity benefits/ Use of international law as a guide for interpreting domestic law

In October 1967, a pregnant worker employed by the enterprise Mountain Stuart Estate was authorized to take her maternity leave. The worker received benefits equivalent to 12 weeks’ work, but Sundays were excluded from the calculation since the enterprise considered them to be unpaid rest days. Not satisfied with this payment, the worker took the case to the Labour Court, alleging that the benefits paid to her for her maternity leave should include the 12 Sundays. The Court found in favour of the claimant, ordering the enterprise to pay her for the 12 Sundays. When the decision was appealed, the Court of Madras found in favour of the enterprise. Unsatisfied with this decision, the claimant appealed the ruling and the Court that heard the case found in her favour. The enterprise once again appealed the decision before Supreme Court, which had to decide whether, in light of the Law on Maternity Pay (Law LIII of 1961), the calculation of maternity benefits should include Sundays. When embarking on an analysis of the case the Court cited section 5 of Law LIII, which stipulates that the maximum period for which a woman has the right to receive maternity pay is 12 weeks: six weeks before the birth and including the day of the birth and six weeks from the day after the birth.

The Court them analysed the word “week” in linguistic terms, examining its various dictionary definitions, and reached the conclusion that the weeks in question did include Sundays. On these grounds, the Court held that if the legislator had wanted maternity pay to exclude Sundays, they would have written the law in a different way. The Court also pointed out that:

“The interpretation placed by us on the phraseology of sub- sections (1) and (3) of section 5 of the Act appears to us to be in conformity not only with the legislative intendment but also with Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 4 of Convention No. 103 concerning Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952:

‘1. While absent from work on maternity leave in accordance with the provisions of Article 3, the woman shall be entitled to receive cash and medical benefits.

2. The rates of cash benefit shall be fixed by national laws or regulations so as to ensure benefits sufficient for the full and healthy maintenance of herself and her child in accordance with a suitable standard of living.’”2

The Court, making use of ILO Convention No. 103 as a guide to interpreting the law, dismissed the appeal, confirming the original ruling which ordered the enterprise to pay the maternity benefits calculated to include Sundays.

Full text of the decision