Is Hire & Fire the new normal in traditional news media?

17 Feb,2017

 

‘Heartless and shameful’ 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

One thing that we do not talk enough about is the treatment of journalists and media employees by managements. It can be argued that the reason is obvious – people are scared for their own jobs. Certainly, that is a factor. But what does it make of us, who expose the wrongdoings of others and various injustices in the world, if we live by the Mafia’s omerta code when it comes to ourselves?

It makes us hypocrites and cowards.

A letter by Biswajit Roy, put up by the website PGurus.com, outlines in great detail the suffering inflicted on staff by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group – over 700 have been summararily dismissed as part of some downsizing programme. The act itself is one thing but the manner in which this was done was both heartless and shameful.

Says Roy: “The ABP management did not allow me to write my resignation letter but got me signed on a one line format that had no mention of the company’s current culling of its workforce. Instead, it pretended that I left out of my free will. Neither had I received a written assurance on the details of the ‘special package’ and statutory dues when I had to sign another format about payments. One of editorial bosses countersigned the latter as I asked for a promissory note from the management. My HR handler told that the company would not commit formally to an individual (even if the job contract was between the company and me as individual) but no reason was offered. I had to insist for the photocopies of the two papers. The pressure on me to put in my resignation at the earliest was aimed at accomplishing the management’s mission by this month.

Although I would be released on March 1, my access to the office computer system was deactivated even before I tendered my resignation. It was meant to make me feel completely unwanted.

Also I was asked to surrender my entry swipe card. The arm-twisting tactics was evident as I was told that the processing of my dues would not begin unless I comply with. I became an outsider effectively on the very day. Now I would have to call or meet HR/accounts or editorial nodal men and meet them at the reception, if they want, to get my dues cleared. So I am at the mercy of the management to receive the fruits of its benevolence after serving the house for20 plus years.

I am told to trust the company which did not think twice before humiliating and firing 700 odd men and women in the name of financial crisis but never bother to explain or discuss with the staffs on ways to overcome it. It did not bother to offer us an honorable exit or an amicable separation except a unilateral but informal assurance of a soothing package. Instead, a piece of paper handed over to the victims revealed the Orwellian absurdity of the world of ABP’s HR mandarins. It offered us help from career counselors, psychiatrists and tax consultants except an audience with the top guns or some exchange of parting messages, not even the corporate niceties like the exit interviews.”

Some media commentators feel that four months’ severance pay is “generous”. This is being unnecessarily kind if nothing else. They believe the promise that the ABP offering to give senior staff who have been with the group for over 20 years their basic salary for life is sufficient. I feel it is fair to remain sceptical. All it takes is one swaggering new CEO to change that offer. Also, Roy’s letter belies that claim. The small print – something that journalists are no good at when it comes to employment contracts – needs to be read clearly. Further, no matter how media salaries have increased recently, print does not compare to television and journalists are still worse paid than managers. The humiliation heaped on long-time ABP staffers is clear in Roy’s letter.

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The Times of India has expressed its own case in print – that demonetisation has hurt the industry badly. But it has held firm so far. The Hindustan Times however has been like the ABP Group – mass sackings, closing of bureaus and editions across India. However, in Mumbai at least, journalists’ unions have made their anger clear. Public protests have been held and a memorandum sent to ShobhnaBhartiya, owner of HT Media.

Some sections read:

1. It is clear that you have decided to close down these editions in other to avoid the implementation of the Supreme Court order and the Majithia Wage Board award.
2. Your action led to untold misery and disrupted the lives of scores of employees, besides leading to the tragic and untimely death of a senior staffer of Hindustan Times — soon after his illegal termination by the company. Your callousness and cynical apathy only shows how much you are only concerned with the maximisation of profits.
3. We do not accept your excuse that demonetisation has forced you to take this step because, although it is only a three month old process, you have evaded the process of implementation for more than three years.

The JAC demanded the restoration of editions with reinstatement of all employees and implement the Majithia Wage Board Award in toto, thereby maintaining the spirit and letter of the Supreme Court verdict in this regard.”

The crux of the matter remains the old, well-known media management ploy: cut down on journalists and try to run a newspaper with trainees and a few overpaid high-level toadies. We all know what rubbish will emerge out of that plan. Besides, when a trainee journalists earns Rs 15,000 a month and you think that’s a lot, remember the fat, bloated useless CEO who earns in crores and sits with accountants to cut costs. One newspaper I worked in had a man from the oil industry as CEO. What he understood about the media could be written on an old-style bus ticket.

And then there’s demonetisation. We should think a bit before we toe the government’s bogus line on this one. Most of India and our fellow journalists and media staff are being burned by it. If we care, that is.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and columnist, former editor and Consulting Editor with MxMIndia since 2011. The views here are her own

 

‘Time we smell the coffee’ 

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

Ask any one outside of the traditional news media in this country, and you’ll be told that the process of hire-and-fire is nothing unusual. Gone are the days of government organisations and large business groups offering you the luxury of planning your post-retirement holiday on the day of joining.

There are cases of even a group like the Tatas showing the pink slip to people where and when it’s needed. I know of at least one newspaper CEO’s exit announcement dished out to him and the rest of the organisation on his birthday.

For long, journalists have been subjected to a work environment that’s privileged. And as I am out of the system now,  I can say that the privilege wasn’t based on much logic.

The only comfort that journalists had was – as it may still exist in some business empires, is that there is no way in which you could be sacked. But managements found ways to deal with the lot who were governed by the wage boards and didn’t want to switch to the contractual system. Their access to the paper – the very reason for working as journalists – was stopped and at least one large newspaper group ensured that they were near-shamed in full view of colleagues who accepted the management line.

But are newspaper groups who believe in hire-and-fire regime cruel and indulging in unethical and illegal practices? On the legalities, one would think a lot would depend on what the contracts spell out for each employee, but otherwise one needs to accept this: that while the term of the contract is good to have on a piece of paper – stamped or otherwise, the maximum duration of any employment is effectively the notice period that exists from either side. So if my contract is for three years with a 30- or 90-day notice period, then the notice period is my minimum term of employment. And my services can be dispensed with just a 30- or 90-day notice and since I am a signatory to the contract – on stamped or unstamped paper, I can do sweet nothing if my employer terminates the contract. Hence one could well say that my employment is not of three years, but 30 or 90 days.

The problem in the news media is a little different, especially in newspaper companies. Employee remuneration is pathetic in many publications but journalists are happy to take up employment despite the abysmally low salaries. Also, many newspaper companies are run more on emotions and intangibles than business arithmetic and scientific forecasting. For instance, if Reporter X gets Rs 30k in Mumbai, it’s possible that s/he will get just Rs 12k in a Tier 3 city. And lower in a Tier 4 city. Many newspapers continue to run editions in centres despite losses. I can understand that if the edition is of strategic importance, but more importantly these things work purely on the whim of a senior business or editorial executive or the owners.

What’s more while progressive employers always think twice before processing the sack, many in the news media aren’t worried about their reputation. They know despite having a bad HR record, prospective employees will happily accept all the s**t they are subjected to.

Unless we have a fair number of journalists who refuse employment in organisations which have treated their tribe unfairly, employers will do whatever they feel like.

But newspaper employees – journalists especially – need to be ready for a hire-and-fire regime in their place of work.

Demonetisation or the impact of it has hit all media as it has most business sectors, but that’s not enough reason for businesses to be shut or people to be sacked. Some rationalisation is fine, but the process is only to make these organisations leaner, with healthier financial books. And if any employer can’t take six months of financial stress, it mustn’t be in business.

The wage board is something newspaper owners need to live with thanks to the excesses of some of their tribe in the past. If drivers are getting paid 60k when all that they deserve is 15, then it’s out of a logic that is rooted in the underpayment of employees by newspaper groups, especially outside of the metros.

Clearly, if our news media wants the benefit of receiving the largesse from government in the form of DAVP advertising, then it will need to toe the government line to some extent… so the wage board recommendations can’t be wished away.

All in all, the rules of business in newspapers has changed. It’s sad that someone from a progressive publishing group like ABP has reasons to feel aggrieved. But that’s the way modern business is run. Haven’t we haven’t heard of stories where financial institution employees were taken out by lunch by their bosses and on their return after the news was broken to them, the contents of their drawers and laptops were just handed out to them. The sack intimations handed out to dotcom employees in 2000-01 were similar. Did anyone shed a tear for them?

Perhaps they did. But that’s sadly the way many businesses are. And journalists can no longer be insulated from this new normal.

 

Pradyuman Maheshwari is a senior journalist and academic. Although he is Editor-in-Chief with MxMIndia, the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily that of the website.

 

 

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