Unique 5-day Satyagrah by UNI employees ends in the hope that dues will be paid

Management accepts the backlog of 56 months’ salary, says it represented a “grave state of affairs”


On October 2, a unique Satyagrah, or peaceful Gandian protest, had begun on the streets of New Delhi. Sitting on protest, and a relay hunger strike, were a group of senior journalists demanding wages that had remained unpaid for 56 months! Ironically it was not really covered in the major news outlets. Ironically also because it was undertaken by UNIFront, the banner formed by a group of  employees of the United News of India (UNI), a news agency that most news organisations once depended on for breaking news and news from far away districts of the country. Those sitting on hunger strike too had come from places outside Delhi, and were holding demonstrations on the pavement right outside the head office of UNI in the heart of the National Capital.

Five days later, the serving and former employees of UNI, who were protesting the massive delay in their salaries and backlogs payments of dues pending for decades, marked their first victory and called off the agitation. The UNI management, for the first time ever called UNIFront for three rounds of  discussions ”which resulted in agreement on several points and assurances of action on others,” UNIFront said. They later issued a joint Statement of UNI Management and UNIFront according to which, “The management team headed by Ajay Kumar Kaul, Editor-in-Chief, accepted that the backlog of 56 months’ salary, which is a legacy issue, represented a grave state of affairs.”

There is a massive backlog of pending salaries

The management, according to the members of UNIFront, has said that they will “clear the backlog in due course.” The management has now started disbursement of “Rs. 15,000/- as part-payment of salaries to current employees and Rs. 10,000/- of former employees”, the payments will be made on a monthly basis.  The UNIFront, members who sat on dharna and persuaded the management to invite them for talks included M L Joshi, Shailendra Jha, Imran Khan, Gurmeet Singh and Mahesh Rajput, who are all from various state bureaus of the organisations and have been fighting for their basic right of a timely salary for a long time.

There are also around 200 employees who have retired or resigned, and 68 have now been “paid Rs. 10,000/- as part payment  towards their pending dues,” the UNI management said. However, the UNIFront has asked that the amount be increased to Rs. 15,000 which is at par with the current employees. The management also agreed to share with the employees “detailed statements regarding their terminal dues, including Gratuity”. Till now, the employees were kept in the dark and had no option but to hope that a salary was credited in their account.

“Many had been taking out small loans to even meet their basic needs,” an employee told SabrangIndia. Senior journalist Mahesh Rajput added that the massive delay of salaries have impacted the children of the UNI employee, many of whom had had to compromise with the education they desired and were forced to pursue courses they could afford. Many more have depleted family savings, and now have debts on their heads.

There are former employees, including those who had opted for VRS in July 2010 who were yet to get their dues. Dues are also pending for employees who had either died on duty or passed away after leaving the organisation. Now the UNI management has assured that “such cases would be dealt with on a priority-basis.” As the UNI shut down its Kolkata and Bengaluru Centres due to “non-viability”, Kaul assured that “the affected non-journalist employees would be paid in due course or then accommodated in other Centres.” Wage had also been deducted of non-journalist employees who were not able to attend the office during the Covid-19 lockdown. Now the management says all cases of “punitive action” taken by the  management in the recent past will be reviewed.

What went wrong at UNI?

The United News of India, the premier news agency, “celebrated” 60 years of its news operations on March 21, 2021. However, while Chairman of the Board of Directors, Sagar Mukhopadhyay, in his note marking the occasion said, “The rich legacy of UNI is the fruit borne by 60 years of collective efforts of generations of UNI’s employees. For this and more, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all the present and retired staff of UNI and their families who have stood by the organisation even through adverse circumstances and  displayed remarkable commitment.” The truth was that many employees were battling a two-decade-long financial crisis in UNI.

Recently many contractual appointments in the editorial as well as other departments were made and there also panic resignations at the same time. Contractual employment was introduced in UNI, in the 2000s, and had in effect “divided” the employees, as contractual employees were paid regularly, while “pay-roll employees” alleged they were “made to wait for their salaries for months together”. The delay in salary payments began in 2006 and the situation worsened. “Now,” say employees, “the gap  between two salary payments has increased between six and eight months in many centers. Which  means that employees are not even getting two salaries in a year!”  

According to the statement they issued, the Editor-in-Chief on September 14, 2021 issued a signed note by which “employees were told that Rs. 15,000/- (Rs. Fifteen Thousand Only) paid on a monthly/rotational basis would be part of the due salary of that month and that the rest of the salary would remain due and would be paid in due course of time, depending on the availability of funds.” This was the final blow that forced the group to come to Delhi and state their protest under the newly-formed All-India UNI Employees’ Front. According to the members, “In July 2010, a Voluntary Retirement Scheme was introduced to reduce the employees’ cost. Fifty-six employees opted for VRS. They were promised to receive benefits under the scheme in two installments.The first installment of 50 per cent of the total amount was paid in August 2010”. Ten year later, they are still waiting for the second and last installment. “The liability of unpaid salaries and legal dues like  gratuity, LTA, leaves encashment, etc to regular as well as retired/resigned/VRS employees has risen to  Rs. 150 crore (Rupees One Hundred and Fifty Crore Only) today,” said the employees. 

The big blow 

In October 2020, the UNI’s largest subscriber, Prasar Bharati, suddenly announced its decision to discontinue UNI and Press Trust of India (PTI)  services. According to employees, it seems that this was a decision taken “after a couple of stories about the border dispute with China by the PTI angered the Narendra Modi government.” The Prasar Bharati subscription amounted to around 45% of the revenue of UNI. Due to the said loss of revenue, the gap between the payment of two salaries increased from 60 days to 180 days!  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the employees alleged that the management even deducted wages of non-journalist employees. In May 2020, the management allowed journalists and administrative staff to continue to work from home, however they “asked non-journalist employees to attend office as media “falls under essential services”. Some 12 non-journalist employees across the country who were unable to attend the office due to strict lockdown measures and unavailability of transport in their respective states were treated as absent from duty and their wages were deducted,” stated UNIFront. Soon the Kolkata office was shut down, some other offices may be facing a similar fate in the near future.  

(UNI management is yet to respond to a query sent by SabrangIndia, but the UNIFront members, all employees shared a statement after their talks. Story will be updated if and when the management responds.)



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