Wage board wars
3 April 2015
How much should journalists be paid?
The term ‘fourth estate’, often used to describe the media, was reportedly coined by the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke in a debate in the British House of Commons in 1787. Using the term to describe reporters who sat in a gallery, he argued that the press was “far more important” than the three other “estates”, namely, the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. The independence of the media, which is meant to ensure checks and balances in the working of other institutions of the state, has been considered indispensable to a functioning democracy.
Even as journalists are expected to act as the proverbial watchdogs of society and hold accountable those in positions of power and authority, they are themselves meant to be accountable to the public at large. Journalists are supposed to provide accurate and authentic information, besides disseminating a variety of opinions. One of the rights that journalists can lay claim to is security of employment, somewhat like the claims made by government officials. Such rights were supposed to also include well-defined conditions of work and remuneration structures as determined by a government-mandated wage board – at least, that was how it was supposed to be in India.
However, employers of journalists in the world’s largest democracy found ways to circumvent the terms imposed by wage boards which granted various rights to working journalists as well as other employees of companies that publish newspapers. Over the years, companies like Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited (BCCL), one of Asia’s biggest publishers – including of the Times of India, the world’s most widely circulated multi-edition English-language daily newspaper – gave journalists and other employees substantially higher salaries and perquisites in comparison to those mandated by the wage board. This was provided they agreed to work on the basis of short-term contracts (that could last for a few months to a few years) without guarantees of secure employment.
Six wage boards for journalists have been set up in India since 1955. The most recent wage board, the sixth one, was constituted in 2007. It submitted its recommendations in December 2010 which were accepted by the Indian government in 2011. This decision was legally sought to be challenged by owners of newspapers, but in February 2014 the Supreme Court upheld the government’s position. Awards by all wage boards in the past have been opposed by associations of publishers and owners of newspaper companies. A few of these companies, which are family-dominated and highly profitable, bring out some of the most widely circulated newspapers not only in the country but in the world as well.
Implementing the wage board’s recommendations, including payment of arrears, has impacted the finances of media companies. For instance, the Chennai-based Kasturi & Sons Ltd, publisher of the Hindu newspaper, has been offering incentives to its employees to shift to a contract-based system of compensation. Once considered to be among the most paternalistic newspaper organisations in India with a deserved reputation of looking after its employees, including by paying them salaries and healthcare costs as per the wage board, Kasturi & Sons, for the first time in its history, incurred a loss of INR 65 crore (USD 10 million), on a turnover in excess of INR 1000 crore (USD 160 million) during the financial year that ended on 31 March 2014. The newspaper has been published continuously since 1878.
A former editor of the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, recently espoused the virtues of the contractual system – an arrangement that also makes journalists prone to be ‘hired and fired’. In a December 2014 interview with the Scroll.in, he remarked that he is bothered by the “value judgement within the media that journalists shouldn’t be paid so much.”
The publishers of the Bengali-language daily Ananda Bazar Patrika and the English-language Telegraph demanded that the constitution of the wage board and the 1955 Working Journalists Act be declared illegal, null and void.
Over the last few years, especially since the 2008 Great Recession in the West and an economic slowdown in the East, two phenomena have combined to put huge pressures on the working of traditional mass-media organisations: first, the cutbacks in expenditure on advertising and the second, the phenomenal growth of the digital media with huge volumes of “free” written and audio-visual content. The disruption in the revenue models of media organisations have adversely affected the ways in which the gathering and dissemination of news and information are funded. This, in turn, has also had a negative impact on salary structures and the security of tenures of all media personnel, and in particular, journalists.
In 1955, the government of India enacted the Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act to regulate the conditions of service of working journalists. In 1974, the act was amended to include other employees of newspaper establishments. In order to fix the wages of employees in newspaper companies, the Union government was empowered to constitute two wage boards – one for working journalists and the other for the rest of the employees.
At the heart of the system was a committee, comprising three newspaper employees, three representatives from newspaper establishments and four independent members, including a serving or retired judge of a high court or the Supreme Court. Since 1955, while six wage boards have been constituted for working journalists, four have been set up for other employees of the newspapers. On 24 May 2007, the sixth cycle – comprising two wage boards, one each for working journalists and non-journalists – was completed. The boards were first chaired by Justice Narayana Kurup, who was succeeded in March 2009 by Justice Gurbax Rai Majithia, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court.
The Majithia wage board suggested various important social-security measures which went beyond the mandated revision of the wage structure. These included post-retirement benefits, a forward-looking promotion policy, paternity leave for male employees, a retirement age of 65 years, a pension scheme, allowances for night-shifts, hardship, transport and house rent, a tribunal to adjudicate on complaints regarding non-implementation or circumvention of the wage board’s awards, and equal salary for contractual workers and regular employees where the same work is performed. The wage board also announced an “interim relief” of 30 percent of basic pay for employees, with effect from January 2008, and recommended an overall increase in salaries, with a provision for payment of past arrears.
In May 2011, the Kolkata-based ABP Limited, publishers of the Bengali-language daily Ananda Bazar Patrika and the English-language Telegraph, filed a petition challenging the recommendations of the Majithia wage board as well as the legislation under which it had been constituted. These were subsequently followed by petitions from other media groups, including BCCL and the news agency United News of India (UNI). The Indian Newspaper Society (INS), which represents over 1000 small, medium and large publishers, tried to stall the implementation of the recommendations of the wage board. The society put out advertisements in major newspapers saying that the recommendations were arbitrary. In a rather derogatory tone, it contended that if the recommendations were accepted, a lowly peon would be paid up to INR 45,000 (USD 700) a month and a driver up to INR 50,000 (USD 800).
The petitioners demanded that the constitution of the wage board and the 1955 Working Journalists Act be declared illegal, null and void, arguing that it was ultra vires to the Constitution of India. They also urged the apex court to grant an injunction restraining the Union government and others from giving effect to the award and the recommendations made therein. One of the main arguments made in the writ petition was that the act and the wage board’s recommendations were tantamount to a violation of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which guarantees every citizen of India freedom of speech and expression. It was contended that this fundamental right was not merely restricted to the freedom to write and publish whatever an author deemed proper, but also included the freedom to carry on the business of the press without onerous and prohibitive restrictions. The petition also argued that the 1955 Act was a gross violation of the right to run a business, which was also a basic fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.
It was pointed out that all wage boards applicable to employees in other industries – cotton, sugar, tea, coffee, rubber, cement, jute – had been abolished over a period of time, the last one being the one for sugar in 1989. The petition also emphasised that in 2002, the National Commission on Labour had unequivocally recommended that “there was no need for a wage board to be constituted for any industry.” Given that the practice of setting up wage boards in other industries had long been discontinued, it was felt that employers and trade unions had achieved sufficient maturity to bilaterally decide issues regarding wage fixation. There were no wage boards in other media sectors like television, radio and the internet. The petition argued, “In an era of globalization and liberalization, to shackle one part of the industry with regulations is unreasonable, unfair and arbitrary…”
The petition claimed that the object and purpose of the act – to ameliorate the conditions of service – had been achieved since journalists were being paid ‘fair’ wages. Thus, the requirement for controlling and regulating the conditions of service of newspaper employees was no longer required. It pointed out that through bilateral negotiations and discussions, newspaper owners had entered into contracts with a vast majority of journalists and offered them wages, salaries and compensation packages to retain top class talent.
Journalists were an essential and vital part of a newspaper establishment since their skills, qualification and expertise were required to ensure the best content and manpower management had been strengthened to attract the best talent, the petition added. It argued that there was greater competition to newspapers from television, the internet and from foreign publications and that companies had to provide good working conditions to retain talent.
On 7 February 2014, a bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice P Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh ruled that the recommendations of the wage boards were valid and based on genuine and acceptable considerations. The apex court of the country ordered that the revised wages would be payable from 11 November 2011. It further ruled that all arrears up to March 2014 should be paid to all eligible people in four equal instalments within a year of the judgment.
Other newspaper proprietors and editors also complained that running a media company would become unaffordable.
Examining the 1955 Act, Chief Justice Sathasivam said the court was of the opinion that the challenge to the act was “wholly unfounded, baseless and completely untenable”. The constitutional validity of the Act was challenged previously in 1958 by the Indian Express group, which had argued that by favouring only working journalists over other employees, the right to equality under Article 14 was being violated. The Supreme Court had then struck down the argument quoting a 1954 report of the Press Commission, which the February 2014 judgement also relied upon.
The Press Commission had sought to place in perspective the nature of the journalist’s job:
Journalism [is a] a highly specialized job and to handle it adequately a person should be well-read, have the ability to size up a situation and to arrive quickly at the correct conclusion, and have the capacity to stand the stress and strain of the work involved. His work cannot be measured, as in other industries, by the quantity of the output, for the quality of work is an essential element in measuring the capacity of the journalists. Moreover, insecurity of tenure is a peculiar feature of this profession. This is not to say that no insecurity exists in other professions but circumstances may arise in connection with profession of journalism which may lead to unemployment in this profession, which would not necessarily have that result in other professions. Their security depends to some extent on the whims and caprices of the proprietors. We have come across cases where a change in the ownership of the paper or a change in the editorial policy of the paper has resulted in a considerable change in the editorial staff. In the case of other industries a change in the proprietorship does not normally entail a change in the staff.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Caravan, believes that journalists are unaware of the considerable protections available to them under the law. In an article titled ‘Freedom from repression’ in the December 2014 issue of the magazine that was devoted to the media, he talks of his own experience as an employee of different media companies. When he joined the Times of India in 1995, he says he was not given the option of joining under wage-board norms. It was only 18 years later when he was asked to quit Open magazine, owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group, under ‘mutually acceptable circumstances’ that he began examining his rights as a journalist. He found out that even if under a contractual agreement, he had the protection of the 1955 Act, Clause 16. On the “effects of laws and agreements inconsistent with this act”, it had been stated:
The provisions of this Act shall have effect notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in any other law or in terms of any other award, agreement, contract of service, whether made before or after the commencement of this Act… Provided that where under any such award, agreement, contact of service or otherwise a newspaper employee is entitled to benefits in respect of any matter which are more favourable to him than those to which he would be entitled under this Act, the newspaper employee shall continue to be entitled to the more favourable benefits in respect of that matter, notwithstanding that he receives benefits in respect of other matters under this Act.
Within a day of the Supreme Court judgment, the Times of India published a quarter-page report condemning the judgment and reiterated some of the arguments that had been made by the owners of newspaper companies. The report stated:
The Supreme Court judgment will deal large sections of the print media a grievous body blow and will financially weaken even the few strong companies that are left in an industry that worldwide is under crushing pressure, with its very existence in question… Even more shocking is that this is the only industry in India where wages are fixed for an organized industry by a centrally-constituted outside body, and where the terms and conditions of employment make it difficult for managements to weed out even the most inefficient and unproductive workers. Every survey in the world has shown that labour inflexibility actually hurts creation of jobs – employers are wary of hiring even in boom time if they are not allowed to trim the workforce in a downturn. A flexible labour market, on the other hand, gives employers the confidence to add staff when a company, industry or market is expanding.
Other newspaper proprietors and editors also complained that running a media company would become unaffordable. Kurian Abraham, editor and managing director of Dhanam said, “We are talking about a liberalised economy, where everything is market driven. However, in the present scenario, most of the print and television players are in a difficult situation. So, this initiative could be a well thought one for later, but not now. Implementation of this could see good and meaningful players exit from the business.”
Trade unions representing journalists did not agree with the views of employers. In a joint statement issued on 8 February 2014, Sujata Madhok, president of Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) and Rajkumar, secretary of Delhi Press Unity Centre (DPUC), contended, “It is a singular irony that the Bennett Coleman & Co, the biggest newspaper group with enormous revenues at its command, refuses to pay employees the wages recommended by a tripartite wage board, which included representatives of the newspaper industry.” They argued that the Supreme Court judgement was welcome and would provide relief to hundreds of newspaper employees throughout the country. The last wage revision in the industry had taken place more than a decade back. The DUJ-DPUC statement condemned the demand of ‘flexibility’ by newspaper owners and noted the growing intolerance displayed by managements towards unions and their office bearers. It said that unions had been broken in several nefarious ways, including by dismissing office-bearers, making them ‘scapegoats’, by mass retrenchments of blue-collar workers and by the introduction of the contract system.
There is no doubt that unless journalists have greater security of employment and tenure, better remuneration and good working conditions, they will be constrained in fulfilling their role as independent gatherers and providers of information and opinions. They will also find it difficult to investigate acts of corruption and abuse of power and authority. Journalists who are paid low wages would predictably be prone to allurements and bribes and, not surprisingly, be willing to plant slanted information as news or suppress important facts that may suit the interests of particular persons or groups. Only if media personnel are able to work in a conducive and enabling environment will the ‘fourth estate’ be able to act as effective antagonists and adversaries to entrenched elites, and – to recall the oft-quoted words of American writer Finley Peter Dunne – “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
The inevitable consequence of an unfavourable economic situation is that corporate entities as well as government bodies tend to cut back, or limit, expenditures on advertising and marketing services. This has had a negative impact on the fortunes of traditional media organisations that have been accustomed to receiving the bulk of their earnings (often more than 90 percent) from advertisers and sponsors. After the collapse of Wall Street in September 2008, satellite radio service provider Worldspace was among the first major global media organisations to go under. This is perhaps not surprising given that it had a subscription-based revenue model that sought to marginalise advertisers, if not eliminate them altogether.
The exponential rise in the use of the internet as a medium of mass communication as well as personalised communication has also changed the traditional media business. The circulation and readership of newspapers in developed countries, as well as listeners of radio programmes, had been declining or stagnating even before the internet, thanks considerably to the growth of television. In developing countries like India, however, all media – print, radio, television, internet and mobile telephony – have expanded during this period because of relatively narrow audience bases and low literacy levels.
For example, the circulation of newspapers and magazines in many developing countries, including India, China and the countries of Africa and South America, had been growing steadily until recently. India’s census data indicates that the literacy rate (defined as the ability to read and write one’s name) grew by an average of over 9 percent between 2001 and 2011. Still, roughly one out of four Indians is still officially ‘illiterate’. As this proportion decreases, the first documents that what the newly literate read after their textbooks are inexpensive newspapers.
Over the last few years, there has been a shakeout in India’s media together with job losses running into thousands.
However, developing countries such as India with comparatively low internet penetration among the population (roughly one-fifth at present) will not be able to buck international trends in media consumption for too long. In other words, the writing on the wall seems clear: as more mobile handsets become web compatible and as more laptops are used in the country, the internet will become increasingly important as an aggregator and disseminator of information and opinions. What does this mean for the journalist?
Over the last few years, there has been a shakeout in India’s media together with job losses running into thousands. Here are a few examples. In August 2013, a company in the Network18 group that runs CNN-IBN, IBN7 and CNBC-TV18 television news channels among others, laid off close to 300 employees. The previous year, Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), India’s biggest corporate entity in the private sector, had committed investments worth INR 4800 crore to the promoters of the group. After RIL formally took over the ownership of the group in May 2014, several senior journalists including Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose left the organisation.
In mid-2014, the Bangalore and Pune editions of DNA (Daily News and Analysis) newspaper were shut down and operations were centralised at the publication’s headquarters in Mumbai. At least thirteen editorial and design personnel were asked to resign in Bangalore alone. The Pune edition also saw a similar whittling down of staff. Earlier, in February 2013, the newspaper had axed around 40 positions and contracts were reworked. In December 2013, the Tamil Nadu-based Sri Ramaswamy Memorial (SRM) group decided to indefinitely postpone the launch of its English-language television news channel, verbally warning some 40-odd employees of its media company – New Generation Media Corporation Private Limited– to either leave their jobs or accept drastically lower wages.
There are many such instances. Dozens of young men and women working on short-term contracts for a particular television channel run by the Sadhna group in the national capital region occupied their office premises for days after they were asked to leave without being paid two months’ salaries in lieu of notice. In recent years, a number of media companies whose owners have dubious antecedents have mushroomed and their employees and contractual workers have been, and remain, particularly vulnerable.
This is, however, not to argue that all media organisations are doing badly or run fly-by-night operations that ‘hire and fire’. Far from it. Some of the major media groups who dominate markets in India have been performing extremely well. Take the case of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited. Run by the Jain family, the group’s owners, senior managers and top journalists are highly paid. In an era when the role of editors in large media organisations are being whittled away with the writ of business heads and top managers gaining precedence, even in BCCL, there tends to be wide gaps in remuneration between different categories of employees.
In BCCL’s 2013-14 annual report, 81 individuals are listed as highly-paid directors or employees. Of this, Chairperson Indu Jain and her sons Samir Jain and Vineet Jain (all members of the Jain family) are reported to have received over half of the total remuneration paid to the rest of the listed individuals. The remaining 78 people received 46 percent of the total amount which included the remuneration paid to Trishla Jain and Satyan Gajwani, daughter and son-in-law of Samir Jain.
In comparison to the 2010-11 annual report, the latest report indicates a jump of 184 percent in Vineet Jain’s remuneration over this four-year period, while Samir Jain’s remuneration has nearly doubled. At the company’s annual general meeting held on 25 August, a resolution was passed by its shareholders approving the payment of a ‘one-time special bonus’ of INR 17.5 crore (USD 2.8 million) to Vineet Jain during 2014-15. It should be noted that these figures pertain only to remuneration received from the flagship company BCCL and not from other firms in the Times group. Also, the remuneration structure disclosed may not necessarily reflect the true ‘cost to company’ of particular employees and directors. This is because the remuneration that is mandatory to disclose does not include every kind of payment for perquisites, which could include reimbursement of expenses incurred on business development, entertainment, hotel and transport.
Interestingly, less than ten names in the BCCL list belong to journalist or editorial staffers. These names include Jaideep Bose, editorial director of Times of India who received a remuneration of INR 1.94 crore (USD 300,000) in 2013-14, down from INR 4.24 crore (USD 680,000) in 2010-11; Rahul Joshi, editorial director of Economic Times (INR 1.39 crore or USD 220,000 against INR 1.43 crore or USD 230,000 four years earlier) and R Sridharan, executive editor of the ET Now television channel (INR 1.29 crore or USD 200,000), among others.
Former editor of the Indian Express Shekhar Gupta epitomises this category of highly-networked super-rich journalists in the country. A profile of Gupta in the December 2014 issue of Caravan reports that his annual salary sometimes exceeded INR 10 crore (USD 1.6 million).
The pattern of remuneration in BCCL and the Express group is, by and large, true for other profitable large media conglomerates in India as well. BCCL’s own profits are comparable to the profits earned by some of the most profitable corporate entities in the country, including those in sectors ranging from information technology to fast-moving consumer goods and extractive industries. For market leaders, the media business in India remains highly lucrative, even as many small players are struggling to survive, leave alone prosper.
In this rapidly-evolving mediascape in India, what happens to journalism as we have known it over the decades? As in other parts of the world, with the rapid spread of the internet will come not just the growth in the distribution of propaganda and pornography but a flood of rumour, gossip and unverified information – misinformation (through ignorance or laziness) as well as disinformation (or information that is known to be false but deliberately placed in the public domain). The importance of gatekeepers and fact checkers, especially of the information that is fast-flowing and time-bound, will necessarily grow. After all, discerning readers, listeners and viewers will always want accurate information, reliably sourced and authentic, together with views from credible experts – even if these are highly opinionated or biased.
While there are indeed economic challenges in many media organisations, some of them are not paying better wages to their journalists not so much on account of a crunch in resources but because of an imperative to maximise profits. The highly-paid journalists in media organisations, as in many other corporate entities, are expected to keep their subordinates in check and, if necessary, keep them on tenterhooks. These are trying times for independent journalists who refuse the patronage of powerful politicians and corporate captains.
~Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist, educator and documentary filmmaker. He produced and directed ‘A Thin Dividing Line’, a 2013 documentary film that examines the workings of the double taxation avoidance agreement between India and Mauritius. Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri is an independent researcher and editor.