The Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ) is shocked at the spate of job losses in the media industry in the wake of the unprecedented nation-wide lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The mass retrenchments are patently illegal, grossly unethical and unbelievably inhuman, coming as they do at a time when all citizens are facing immense uncertainty and anxiety as they cope with this extraordinary situation. Incredibly, at this perilous juncture, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government has sought to initiate punitive proceedings against the founder editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, for an article on the participation of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in a Ram Navami celebration in the midst of the lockdown. This highly condemnatory act sends a chilling message to the media.

On the other hand, there is little or no action against media anchors that indulge in mischievous and inflammatory broadcasts. In this backdrop, the media industry has effected job losses and wages cuts with impunity. At least 16 employees of News Nation English digital team were summarily sacked on April 10 and told that their dues will be given at the end of the month. The Times of India sacked its entire Sunday magazine team.

At least 15 employees of Sakal Times, the Marathi newspaper, were told to submit their resignations by March 31. At least 45 members of the Quint news site were asked to proceed on leave without pay, releasing them from a noncompete clause. Media houses have summarily shut down, though this is violative of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947).

Hamara Mahanagar, Hindi newspaper from Mumbai, shut down on March 18 citing ‘poor business viability’. Outlook magazine and Nai Duniya suspended publication. Citing inability to pay due to the lockdown, the Indian Express and Business Standard asked staff to take salary cuts. Bloomberg Quint will impose a steep salary cut for April, stating that it ‘expects to resume the normal salary cycle from May’ but makes no mention of making up the lost salary for April. On Mar 23, 2020, the Union Ministry of Labour issued an advisory to employers not to terminate employees, particularly casual or contractual workers, or reduce the wages of workers.

The Maharashtra state government issued a similar advisory, advising employers not to retrench workers or reduce wages. Despite these advisories and legal provisions that disallow retrenchments, terminations or even suspension and closure of publications without due process, media companies have gone ahead with these measures, unmindful of the fact that, in a lockdown of such an incredible magnitude people can barely move out, leave alone go job-hunting.

The BUJ points out that closures, layoffs and retrenchments are not a new phenomenon. In the last few years, scores of media employees have lost their jobs, with little or no compensation. The media industry, led by prominent, cash-rich and politically powerful media houses, has flouted directives of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India to implement the 2011 Majithia wage board award for newspaper and news agency employees. Broadcast and digital media workers don’t even have the fig-leaf of security offered by the Working Journalists Act, 1955. The struggle to get the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board implemented in newspapers and news agencies has been going on in various labour courts of the country and many of these cases are now at the final-arguments stage.

It would be pertinent to note that the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board are statutory in nature and are also applicable to all contractual employees. At the same time, in an overall context of economic slowdown and precarity at the workplace, it is understandable that those who have jobs in the media are simply thankful that they continue to work and draw salaries. But this sense of security is false and illusory: your turn could be next. Undoubtedly, the lockdown due to Covid-19 has plunged the economy into a major crisis and all sectors have been affected very adversely. But, at such an uncertain and anxious time, these retrenchments are callous beyond belief.

The media industry needs to collectively respond to this situation, keeping the welfare of its workers central to its considerations.

In the circumstances, the BUJ demands:

1. That all termination and closure notices in the media post March 15, 2020 be withdrawn

. 2. That all media employees, especially field journalists and non-journalist media workers, be provided with, among other things, personal protective equipment, testing facilities and quarantine, if necessary.

3. That there should be no unilateral decisions on salary cuts or wage deferrals. Discussions and negotiations should be held with representatives of media employees to arrive at just and reasonable time-bound measures to tide over the current crisis.

4. That the Union Government should notify a mandatory directive to ensure that there are no job losses or loss of wages in the media during the Covid-19 crisis and its run-up.

5. Those repressive measures against The Wire editor are dropped forthwith, ensuring a climate conducive for independent media.

BRIHANMUMBAI UNION OF JOURNALISTS 23-25, Prospect Chambers Annexe, Pitha Street, Mumbai -400 001 email: [email protected]