Employees’ Rights Arising Out Of Mergers & Acquisitions: The Indian Judiciary’s Perspective

By Shauree Gaikwad, fourth-year student at MNLU, AURANGABAD

Introduction

Merger and Acquisition (‘M&A’) is an activity undertaken as part of the restructuring of a company. With such M&A activity, the resources which get impacted the most are the human resources of the firm, i.e. the employees of the company. In order to cope up with the M&A activity and see towards it that the company follows fair practices, specific provisions have been laid down by the legislation addressing the rights of the employees. This article shall be discussing the impact of M&A on employees as well as the employees’ rights arising from an M&A.

Types of Mergers & Acquisitions and its Impact on Employees

Mergers and Acquisitions are denoted as “combinations” under the Competition Act, 2002 and denoted as “amalgamations” the Companies Act, 2013.

The Impact of Horizontal Amalgamations on Employees

When an amalgamation takes place between rival businesses, it is known as a ‘horizontal amalgamation’. As a horizontal amalgamation takes place within the same industry, it is strictly assessed by the Competition Commission of India (“CCI”) under section 6 (1) of the Competition Act, 2002 as the amalgamation of two rival industries narrows down the competition in an industry’s market and reaches closer towards having a monopoly in that industry.

A result of a horizontal amalgamation is the amalgamation resulting in twin departments, i.e. the same type of department or team is present in both businesses as they are from rivalling industries. A possible negative effect of a horizontal amalgamation on the employees of that amalgamated entity is that they risk losing their jobs if the amalgamated entity decides to only keep either one of the two twin departments. It also increases the stress on the employees to work harder in order to be better than the employee’s counterpart in order to save themselves from being terminated. The answer regarding whether employees shall be terminated after an amalgamation lies in the vision of the company. If it is envisioned by the amalgamated company to increase its volume of work it takes on, it will undertake the corporate strategy of integrating the twin departments with each other so that they can work seamlessly with each other and also towards the goal of the company. This vision is often reflected in the proposed amalgamation plan, which needs to be mandatorily approved by the necessary authorities before it is implemented.

The Impact of Vertical Amalgamations on Employees

When an amalgamation takes place between unrelated businesses which do not belong to the same industry, then it is known as a vertical amalgamation. An example of a vertical amalgamation would be wherein one entity is into the business of making pencils, and another entity would be into the business of making the lead. An amalgamation of these two entities would result in ‘vertical amalgamation’. In horizontal amalgamations, the same kinds of roles or departments are doubled, and hence, in most of these cases, there is a likely chance that the extra set of employees are fired on the basis of select criteria such as preferred branch, experience, adaptability to the amalgamation. The case is not the same in case of vertical mergers wherein two businesses playing different roles in the supply chain amalgamate because there are no overlaps in roles or departments of the businesses. Rather, departments of the businesses would complement each other and the Board of the amalgamated company would work on a corporate strategy integration of all employees to work towards the amalgamated company’s business goals.

Employees’ Rights arising out of Mergers & Acquisitions: The Judiciary’s Perspective

In the United States, a federal act, known as the the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (‘WARN Act’), 1988, mandates an employer to provide a two month notice to employees if the employer is going to either lay off more than fifty employees or shut down. Therefore, if an amalgamation results in fifty or more employees’ employment to be terminated, a US company shall be obligated to inform the employees two months in advance under the WARN Act. However, there are no other obligations of the employer to inform the employees regarding a merger if the thresholds under the WARN Act are not met.

In the United Kingdom, the Transfer of Undertaking (Protection of Employees) Regulations, 2006, (‘TUPE Regulations’) mandates the employers to retain all employees during an amalgamation, inform the employees prior to the amalgamation, and also provides the employees a choice to terminate their employment in case the employee objects to being employed by the transferee company. Therefore, the TUPE Regulations in an employee friendly law which aims to safeguard the rights of employees and lay out the obligations of employers during an amalgamation. 

Meanwhile in India, only one section of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 deals with employees’ rights coincidental to an amalgamation. According to section 25FF of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, in case the employee is transferred to another company due to an amalgamation resulting in the transfer of management and ownership, then the employee shall be entitled to notice of change and compensation provided that the employee has been working for at least one year, his employment has not become any less favourable than it was earlier, and his services have not been interrupted.

It should be noted that section 25FF did not originally feature a compensation clause. It was the landmark judgement ofHariprasad Shivshankar Shukla vs. A.D. Divikar in 1956 which led to section 25FF being replaced by a new section altogether by The Industrial Disputes (Amendment) Act, 1957 (Act. 81 of 1957). The amended section 25FF is the one that is still into effect till date. This amended section included the provision of compensation to a worker in case his employment is terminated as a result of a transfer in ownership or management.

In Maruti Udyog Ltd. v. Ram Lal & Ors., the Supreme Court clarified that “..Section 25FF envisages payments of compensation to a workman in case of transfer of undertakings, the quantum whereof is to be determined in accordance with the provisions contained in Section 25F, as if the workman had been retrenched…

In Bombay Garage Ltd. v. Industrial Tribunal, the Bombay High Court held that the employer of the transferee company is bound to recognise and make the payment of gratuity for the services rendered by employees while they were employed by the transferor company.

When it comes to employees’ consent to an amalgamation, in Sunil Kr. Ghosh vs. K. Ram Chandran, the Supreme Court, held that in case of a transfer of employees as a result of an amalgamation, the old employer needs to take the consent of employees to be transferred to the new employer. In case of employees’ lack of consent to being transferred, he is entitled to compensation under section 25FF of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

In Gurmail Singh and Ors. vs. State of Punjab and Ors., the Supreme Court interpreted Section 25FF of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 as a guarantee to the employees of either compensation from their former employees after termination of their employment, or continuity of service after his transfer, but not both. The Supreme Court stated that “The industrial law, however, safeguarded his interests by inserting Section 25FF and giving him a right to compensation against his former employer on the basis of a notional retrenchment except in cases where the successor, under the contract of the transfer itself, adequately safeguarded them by assuring them of continuity of service and of employment terms and conditions. In the result, he can get compensation or continuity but not both.

The Supreme Court’s judgement in the Gurmail Singh case was upheld by the Bombay High Court in Air India Aircraft Engineers’ Association and Ors. vs. Air India Ltd. and Ors. wherein it also reiterated the fact that, in case of an amalgamation, an employee is entitled to compensation or continuity of employment, but not more.

Conclusion

As highlighted earlier, unlike the US and the UK, in India, when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, the employees are largely left to have one right given by section 25FF of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 and two choices given under it – to get compensation or to get guaranteed continued employment after transfer resulting from an amalgamation. The Judiciary’s verdicts make it clear that an employee can only choose either of the two options provided under section 25FF and not both of them. However, the Supreme Court has affirmed that no employee can be forced to be transferred and the employee’s consent is necessary even if there are no changes to the work environment and responsibilities of the employee as a result of the employee’s transfer. Therefore, a logical step to getting an employee’s consent to transfer would be a notice of change that needs to be given to the employee at least 21 days in advance of the estimated transfer date under section 9A of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Therefore, given the drastic rise of M&A in India and the lack of a law addressing the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers during an amalgamation, a national law similar to the TUPE Regulations of the UK, should be considered to be made by either the Ministry of Corporate Affairs or the Parliament of India.

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