An ongoing tussle between the management and a journalist at Deccan Herald points to a broader malaise facing the media industry.
In an increasingly contractualised media industry, Suresh Nandi, special correspondent inDeccan Herald, is one of the few journalists who is still employed as per wage board norms. According to Birhanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ) President MJ Pandey, there are “only about 50” journalists in Mumbai who are currently on the wage board.
Late last month, on September 29, Nandi along with BUJ won a victory that they assert is a “victory for all journalists”, while battling for the implementation of the wage board recommendations – it came in the form of an interim order from the Industrial Court in Mumbai, recognising the harassment scribes often face after opting for wage board.
It all started when many newspaper managements launched a full-blown campaign againstthe Majithia wage board after the Supreme Court upheld the recommendations made by it in February 2014.This meant that media houses had to uphold the revised wage recommendations made by the board back in November 2011 and pay arrears to eligible persons within a year in four equal instalments.
Ever on the lookout for ingenious ways to cut costs, newspaper managements found their own way of working around the wage board. Media blog Sans Serif reported that some newspapers like Midday made their employees sign letters in favour of retaining existing salary scales and letting go of awards. The Hoot also reported that DNA
One such letter, or rather “memorandum of settlement”, was also circulated in Deccan Heraldof which Newslaundry has a copy. The document basically stated that employees opting for the revised structure would “co-operate” with the management to bring down the costs by letting go additional allowances including provident fund and gratuity.
Associate Editor, Deccan Herald, K Subramanya states that the document was perfectly legal and that the management was still paying the statutory percentage of provident fund (12%) and gratuity required of a company. “A number of colleagues signed it and agreed to the conditions without the management putting any pressure,” he says.
Nandi though feels that many of his colleagues did so under “duress” and that he himself was harassed for not agreeing to sign it. “Since the management could not coerce me into signing the letter, they transferred me to Guwahati with effect from July 21 from the Mumbai bureau where I had been working for 7 years,” he says.
Deccan Herald does not have an edition or office in Guwahati and Nandi challenged his transfer in court as malafide – the court ruled in his favour. He says he was not given transfer allowance and was stationed there without any infrastructure to function. “I was operating out of a rented accommodation, the company did not even give me a laptop to work on,” he claims.
Subramanya, however, states that Nandi’s claims are baseless: “Newspapers don’t have editions or offices in all cities, yet they station reporters in different cities. We don’t have an edition in Patna but have a correspondent there,” he says, adding that there is no proof of the fact that Deccan Herald transferred Nandi because he refused to sign the papers.
Indeed there is no way of ascertaining whether Deccan Herald sent Nandi to Guwahati as punishment for not signing the letter. But it is also common practice to transfer employees on wage board as an alternative to firing them – since letting go of an employee on wage board is a fairly complex process.
As of now Nandi has got interim relief and expects to be transferred back to Mumbai by the end of this month. But the case may carry on if Deccan Herald decides to challenge the interim order. Also, it is not clear whether Deccan Herald will pay Nandi the additional allowances since he had refused to sign the papers. Nandi has been a journalist for about 30 years and has worked in Business Standard and Financial Express before joining Deccan Heraldin 2007. He has never been a contractual employee and has been on the wage board since the beginning of his career.
The tussle between Nandi and the paper’s management, however, points to a growing friction between employees and owners in the media industry. By making employees sign pre-drafted letters, it is clear that newspaper managements have done little to enable employees to make an informed choice on whether they want to opt for wage board or go with a contract. The effort instead has been to make the choice for them. There may be both pro and cons to wage board recommendations, but perhaps media barons have to understand that any memorandum of “understanding” or “settlement” on this issue must happen between two parties and not on the whims of the management.