With reference to the unsigned editorial ‘Indian Newspaper industry: Red Ink splashed across the bottom line’ (Times of India, Jan 19, 2017), a case is being made out for concessions to the newspaper industry on the grounds that it is in the doldrums and is beleaguered by various burdens, including that of wage board wages, GST, DAVP, etc.
Without mentioning the recent illegal closure of six editions of The Hindustan Times as the obvious peg for this, the editorial seeks a range of concessions – from a part-discontinuance of the wage board for newspaper employees, to subsidies on advertising and tax.
Clearly, what the newspaper industry has lost in judicial review, it is now seeking to stealthily recoup through administrative fiat.
Under the fig leaf of “freedom of speech”, the editorial makes a number of indefensible propositions. However, we will confine ourselves to the empiricial terrain of the Wage Boards and wish to make the following points:
That a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by the then Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam had on Feb 7, 2014 (ABP Pvt Ltd and Anr vs Union of India and Ors), upheld ‘the constitutional validity of the Act and the Amendment Act, 1974’ (referring to the Working Journalists Act, 1955) and rejected the contention of improper constitution of the Wage Boards, irregularity in the procedure adopted by the Majithia Wage Board and that Majithia Wage Boards had overlooked the relevant aspects and considered extraneous factors while drafting the recommendations.
The editorial in question has sought to raise several already-settled issues without any reference to the Supreme Court judgement as cited above. This piece of writing is surely tendentious, if not contemptuous of the Supreme Court order.
It has been almost three years since the Supreme Court upheld the Majithia Wage Board award and directed all newspaper establishments to implement the award and pay arrears within one year of the passing of the order. However, to date, not a single newspaper establishment in the country has implemented the award in its entirety. In fact, more than 50 Contempt Petitions are pending before the Supreme Court. Of course, the editorial fails to mention this fact.
The editorial further seeks to remove non-journalist staff from the ambit of the award claiming that blue-collar staff had received salary hikes of 45-50 percent. It would be instructive to quote the award on this subject. “On the probable impact of wage increase on newspaper establishments: the proposal of the wage boards suggests around 35 and 20 per cent increase in the wages/salaries over and above the salary, including interim relief of employees working in newspaper industry falling in classes I to IV and classes V to VIII respectively. Approximately, it would mean that with this increase, the wages would become about 13.5 per cent of the gross revenue in respect of newspaper establishments falling in class I to IV. This would, therefore, result in further burden of just 3.5 per cent of gross revenue. On a similar analogy, the burden of newspaper establishments in class V to III would be just tree percent of gross revenue. Moreover, this additional burden on newspaper establishment would dissipate over the period as per the past trend. Based on the financial data submitted by the news establishments, the boards feel that it would be possible for them to bear such a moderate increase.”
This view was accepted by the SC, which then went on to give an unprecedented concession to the newspaper establishments and news agencies by unilaterally reducing the period of arrears from 01.7.2010 onwards to 11.11.2011 onwards: thus, at one stroke, giving newspaper and news agency managements relief worth crores of rupees. This fact again goes unmentioned in the editorial.
It would be pertinent to point out that in an affidavit recently filed by Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd before the Labour Commissioner of Maharashtra, the company has admitted that, in its establishments in Mumbai-CST, Kandivli, Pune and Nagpur, it has only 263 employees (34 working journalists, 86 administrative staff and 143 factory staff)
who are entitled to receive the Wage Board Award benefits. The same affidavit meticulously ensures that the columns for individual contract employees and those working through contractors and part time employees have been left blank. By conservative estimates, the Times Group employs at least 5000 people .It admittedly has only 263 eligible employees. Yet the company has chosen to launch an attack on the Wage Board.
The fact of the matter is that all the individual contract employees are also entitled to be paid Variable Pay @ 35 % of their Basic Pay under Clause 9 (b) of the Award. It has also not implemented Clause 20(f) of the Award regarding Assured Career Development. Thus, the Times Group has knowingly refused to implement the Award, choosing, instead, to launch a broadside against it: attack is the best form of defence.
The editorial also comes out with the curious proposal to ‘at least part discontinue the wage board’. Surely, this is unheard of. Which part should be discontinued? As part of its “solutions”, the editorial makes a plea that “government must review wage board and remove non-journalist staff from its ambit.” The editorial has tried to conceal the fact that newspaper and news agency managements have, over the years, compelled journalists to accept personal, fixed-tenure contracts that have subjected them (the journalists ) to the worst kind of iniquities, including denial of most of the rights that have been conferred on them by the Act of 1955.
Also, newspaper and news agency managements have compelled even those journalists who are receiving wages far below what they are entitled to receive under the Award to sign undertakings under Clause 20 (j) of the award, which gives the “option” to the journalists to retain his/her existing pay scale and existing emoluments. It is our contention that all these undertakings have been obtained under duress. Which journalist would forsake higher emoluments in favour of lower existing emoluments? But if you don’t sign on the dotted line, a transfer order is swiftly issued.
By arguing that the category of print journalist no longer exists, the editorial is seeking to extend the law of the jungle that today prevails in the electronic and digital media. Here, there are no minimum wages, no maximum hours of work, no well-defined periods of leave and no gratuity on the lines of those received by working journalists under the Act of 1955.
It is our case that the rights of benefits of working journalists under the Act of 1955 should be extended to those working in the electronic and digital media and not that the employees of print media be cast into an electronic media-like abyss.
It is our contention that most multi-edition media houses have branched out into various businesses including advertising and brand-related event management, entertainment, electronic and digital media, real estate, power generation, mining etc. This they have done on the back of their print media businesses and are thus covered by Sec 2 (d) of the Act of 1955 and clause 2 (5) of the Award. They have to account for all their gross revenue. But the bosses do not want to comply.
The timing of the editorial remains to be teased out. There are two obvious factors. One, the Supreme Court is on the verge of hearing the concluding arguments regarding legal issues. Second, the TOI, on behalf of the newspaper owners, is seeking to twist the arm of the Modi government which is in a vulnerable position today because of the demonetisation fiasco and the chaos over the forthcoming elections to the UP, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur state assemblies.
Indications of things to come can surely be read into the swift response of the IB minister, Venkaiah Naidu, to the TOI editorial today: “if required consultations with stakeholder ministries will also be initiated; will also meet representatives of industry for discussions”.