British India was always an odd blend of compassion and ruthlessness. By the 1920s, the Raj had enacted workers’ compensation laws for the subcontinent. It then proceeded to enforce them fairly ruthlessly.
In about 1936 Mr Maung Ba Aye was employed by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as an elephant handler. On the day in question, however, he had been asked to hand-deliver a letter between two company officials. On his way back he was attacked by a bear, suffering fatal injuries. The Commissioner for Workmen’s Compensation ordered that compensation be paid to the deceased’s mother. The Company appealed to the High Court of Burma, stating that the deceased was not a worker at the relevant time.
The Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923 (Br. Ind.) relevantly defined a workman at 2(1)(n) as
… any person … who is –…
(ii) employed in any such capacity as is specified in Schedule II [which included employment”in the training, keeping or working of elephants or wild animals”] …;
Roberts CJ considered that the Act was a “quasi-penal statute” and so it should be read strictly rather than leniently. As a result –
it is clear that at the time that the deceased was being sent out on a message to Mr. Barlow he was not employed in the task of training, keeping or working of elephants or wild animals. He was a person who was normally employed in that capacity, but was being given other duties to perform on that particular day. … [B]eing obliged to administer the Act as it stands,we are constrained to say that the deceased was not a workman within the meaning of the Act for the purposes of this appeal.
A similar line of reasoning was followed by Dunkley J. As a result the employer could not be ordered to pay compensation in relation to the death.