- NL Sena
A list of employees to be terminated was prepared, and the first blow was dealt on March 6 when 20 were sacked.
The multi-storey Kolkata headquarters of the ABP Group, eastern India’s largest media house that stands tucked away on 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street, looks busy as usual. But underneath the surface, its 700-odd employees are wracked with insecurity. The axe of imminent unemployment hangs over the heads.
Days after firing tens of staffers from its Kolkata and Noida offices on March 6, ABP Group intends to serve pink slips to more employees. Known as a media giant with 11 publications, three 24-hour national TV news channels, one leading book publishing house as well as mobile and Internet properties, insiders say the group’s decision to trim the workforce may put it in deeper doldrums.
Wednesday, March 6, was a “bloody day” for the editorial and non-editorial staff of the group-owned Anandabazar Patrika, the largest circulated Bengali daily, and The Telegraph, the largest circulated English daily in eastern India. Twenty employees, including reporters and desk editors, were asked to put in their papers with immediate effect, without any prior notice.
A news editor at The Telegraph says: “On March 6, I settled down at my desk to work, blissfully ignorant of what was to follow. I suddenly got an email that said my service was no longer required and that I had been removed with immediate effect.” He noticed another colleague sobbing in her cubicle. She too had received a termination letter. “I heard some colleagues at the digital desk shouting; several others were crying, unable to bear the suddenness of it all. On the other hand, in other departments, there was a stunned silence; they were too shocked to even react.”
The company has promised a year’s basic salary to those who have worked for 10 years and more, and three months’ basic pay to those who have served for less than that. Another employee says, “I was asked to tender my resignation without any fuss if I wanted my dues cleared without a hassle.”
‘Ruthless’ downsizing part of ‘cost-cutting’ measures
The move seems to have been some time in the making, similar to the previous retrenchments starting December 2016—when the group had sacked close to 300 employees most of whom were district correspondents. The management had issued notifications to the heads of various editorial sections to make a list of employees they wanted retrenched. A list of 150 people to be terminated in the coming weeks was prepared. The first blow was dealt on Wednesday, when the heads were asked to inform the selected employees about their ouster.
The management, however, has remained tight-lipped on the move. When contacted, Vice President Shiuli Biswas said the company’s decision to downsize is aimed at restructuring its units and cutting costs. No one from the management is willing to reveal the exact number of employees who will be terminated. It’s believed that employees from the marketing and circulation departments—who have been with the group for many decades—are likely to be sacked in the coming weeks.
At the moment, journalists on the business and digital desks, including senior and junior editors, along with the reporters have been let go. The reporting bureau heads of Anandabazar and Telegraph had been asked to trim their reporting teams to 10-15, which is being seen as a departure from the group’s tradition of nurturing a band of reporters.
The Telegraph, considered a good paymaster in the industry that promises a “safe and great place to work”, has been the most ruthless among the group’s publications, say recently sacked employees.
When did it all go south?
The trend of ruthless downsizing of staff to cut costs is a shift from the era of Aveek Sarkar, who had taken over as editor-in-chief in 1983 after his father Ashok Sarkar’s death. Aveek was later forced to resign. Aveek had tried to expand the business with more print content and increase in recruitment.
Then, however, ABP’s budget deficit and losses amounted to ₹100 crore, according to insiders. In 2015, a private multinational firm called Heys was hired to chalk out a plan to rejuvenate the company. After a six-month study, the consultancy submitted its recommendations to the ABP management. Its report stated that the group has at least 47.5 per cent surplus workers. Aveek, was then made to relinquish the top post and his brother Arup took over.
Another factor that hit ABP hard during Aveek’s time was the Trinamool Congress returning to power with a thumping majority in 2016, given the group’s public sparring with the party. And thus began the decline, as ad revenues started drying up.
The print edition of E Bela, a 24-page publication and the first Bengali tabloid which was launched with much fanfare in September 2012, was shut down on March 6. Its online edition was closed three months ago and 15 employees were sacked.
What’s the new plan of action?
The new management, headed by Arup and his son Atideb, has decided to go for an overhaul to “minimise losses incurred during Aveek’s time”. The group’s CEO Dipankar Das Purkayastha said “to revive the company, restructuring the system was crucial and due”.
But some of the decisions have been unexpected. For example, Telegraph and Anandabazar, which were looking forward to strengthening their digital platforms, sacked the digital editor. “Some who refused to resign initially were treated very badly and forced out,” a senior business editor says.
Correction: The earlier article image carried the logo of ABP News instead of ABP Group. We regret the error.
(The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)