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Labour law ‘reforms’

The Working Journalists Acts of 1955 and 1958 are among 12 labour laws to be subsumed in proposed labour codes that will reduce legal protections for journalists at their workplaces

A wave of layoffs is washing through Indian newsrooms. In June, Newslaundry had reported that digital news portal Scroll.in laid off more than 16 employees from its 40-member editorial team, including several state correspondents and senior editors. Just days later, Tiranga TV laid off more than 200 employees leading to a spate of public protests by retrenched journalists demanding transparency and better severance pay.

Earlier, last month, journalist Hartosh Singh Bal, now political editor of Caravan magazine, won against his former employer Open magazine in an industrial dispute he had filed in a Delhi labour court for wrongful termination from work six years back. The court awarded him compensation of  Rs 10 lakh for harassment by his then employer in violating the law, back-wages amounting to six months’ notice pay, and provided for the cost of litigation to be reimbursed by the employer.

What legal protections do journalists enjoy at their workplace? What rights do they have in case of retrenchment?

Bal moved a labour court to seek redress because The Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 1955 says the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947’s provisions apply to journalists. In case of retrenchment, however, lawyers state that the Working Journalists Act enhances the protections for journalists above and beyond the protections the Industrial Disputes Act offers to workers in other sectors.

“While the Industrial Disputes Act Section 25F gives only one month notice period in case of retrenchment of a workman, the current legal protections are that if you wish to retrench a journalist, you have to give three months notice, and if the person is at the level of an editor, then you have to give six months notice,” says Bal’s lawyer Raghav Awasthi, explaining Section 3(2) of the Working Journalists Act. Awasthi adds: “The law provides journalists greater protection than a worker in any other private service as a measure for protecting free speech and the independence of journalists, insulating them from political pressure on media owners.” These protections apply even if journalists sign contracts with employers that do not provide for such a notice period.

Section 16(2) of the Working Journalists Act states:

Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to preclude any newspaper employee from entering into an agreement with an employer for granting him rights or privileges in respect of any matter which are more favourable to him than those to which he would be entitled under this Act.

Thus, the Working Journalists Act provides crucial protections for journalists against arbitrary termination, and even under the contract system, journalists continue to be protected by the Working Journalists Act.

But a major limitation is that the Act, framed in the 1950s, applies only to print journalists. It is yet to be extended to TV, radio and digital news journalists who do similar editorial work in new media. It covers only journalists in newspaper establishments which it defines as a “printed periodical work” of public news and comments notified by the central government. It defines “working journalists” as those who do editorial work, including writers, editors, sub-editors, cartoonists and news-photographers, excluding those employed mainly in a managerial or administrative capacity such as financial officers or HR managers.

Now, even the protections that only print journalists get are being diluted in the new labour codes being considered by the National Democratic Alliance government. On July 10, the Union cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved a Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Bill, 2019. This labour code amalgamates 12 labour laws into one legislation. These labour laws include the Working Journalists Act, 1955, and the Working Journalists (Fixation of Rates of Wages) Act, 1958, along with sector-specific labour laws applying to workers in mines, factories, plantations, and building and construction.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment in a statement said the new labour code, which will now be laid before Parliament, will streamline and modernise labour laws and “enhance the coverage of the safety, health and working conditions provisions manifold”. But the draft drops Section 3(2) of the Working Journalists Act which offers enhanced protections against retrenchment to working journalists and reduces this to a one-month notice period, like workers in any other factory or private establishment. Instead of expanding the definition of “working journalists” to include those doing editorial work in TV, digital, and radio media, it replicates the definition of “working journalists” from the 1955 law by limiting it only those working in newspaper establishments.

A few journalists’ unions expressed concerns over this. The Delhi Union of Journalists in a statement expressed “its incredulity over how these laws are now sought to be repealed by placing them innocuously in a Labour Code on Occupational Health and Safety”. The statement said: “It was honourable members of Parliament who, shortly after Independence, realised the need to protect journalists and enable them to earn a decent livelihood by setting basic standards for the newspaper industry through these two Acts … Without such legal protection the independence of journalists shall be further weakened.”

Sanjay Upadhyay, vice president of Working Journalists of India—a union affiliated with the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the trade union wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh—told Newslaundry he and other members of National Union of Journalists (India), and Delhi Journalists Association had met with the Minister for Labour and Employment, Santosh Gangwar, on July 11 to reconsider these provisions in draft labour code.

“The Second Press Commission report of 1982 came before the advent of private electronic media and radio channels. We asked the minister to incorporate new categories of jobs in electronic and digital media in the labour codes,” says Upadhyay. “We asked for six months’ retrenchment pay for all categories of journalists. The minister told us he would look into it.”

On July 23, when tabling the labour codes, the Lok Sabha included union demands to expand the definition of working journalist. The definition now says “in relation to, one or more newspaper establishment, or other establishment relating to any electronic media such as newspaper or radio or like other media”. However, the notice period of three to six months is absent.

Caravan magazine’s political editor Hartosh Singh Bal says he believes the Working Journalists Act continues to be relevant as it provides crucial protections for journalists against arbitrary termination recognising the vital role that journalists play in a democracy. “Journalists themselves started assuming after the 1990s that if they have signed contracts, they are outside the Working Journalists Act protections. But the contract system cannot displace the Working Journalists Act is what I found out in my case,” he says.

Bal thinks it’s essential that TV and digital journalists are included in the Working Journalists Act as these are categories of journalists doing the same editorial work as print journalists, and similar equal legal protections must apply to them. He adds: “Our failure to report on labour laws and conditions is almost suicidal. It is the same conditions that we work in. It is worrisome that these protections are being diluted. There should be far more outrage about it.”

Senior journalist and readers’ editor of The Wire, Pamela Philipose, says journalists need to oppose the shrinking of their legal protections. “Many journalists fought for years for these legislative protections and the labour Codes in their current form are going to invalidate them. Over a period of time, journalists lost interest in protecting the law and instead looked for better deals for themselves personally. But in this process, they have let their side down. Journalists need to understand the value of collective action at a time when their rights are under attack.”

Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of The Hoot, a South Asian media watch website, says: “The advent of TV and digital has both increased media employment and reduced job security. Media has increased hugely in India, the advertising available to newspapers and others has shrunk, and even former exemplary employers such as The Hindu Group have reduced or done away with jobs covered by the Working Journalists Act.”

Ninan adds: “With job security being a thing of the past, journalists have to be far more watchful of the contracts they sign with employers, and ensure that they get proper compensation and notice periods when laid off. And be prepared to go to court to fight layoffs in unjust conditions. Every journalist who goes to court and wins as Hartosh Bal did recently, helps to ensure that there is a precedent created for his fellow professionals.”

She expresses concern that the “regional press offers practically no security to parttime workers who do news collection in the country’s hinterland”.

Shekhar Gupta, president of the Editors’ Guild of India, who is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the news portal The Print, says he is not aware of the proposals in the new proposed code but he plans to examine them.

RK Gupta, who is joint secretary, labour reforms, at the Ministry of Labour and Employment, did not respond to phone calls and an email questionnaire. The story will be updated if the ministry responds.

The story has been updated with Lok Sabha proceedings of July 23

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