A few days before declaring a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak last month, the Narendra Modi government issued an asking public and private employers not to lay off their workers or cut their salaries in these difficult times.
It’s less than a month since the advisory was issued and employers are disregarding it already, including media houses. On April 10, abruptly laid off its entire English digital team of 15. They were not given notice of termination or allowed to serve their notice period, the sacked staffers said.
One of them told Newslaundry he got a call from the editor-in-chief, Manoj Gairola, at around 5 pm on April 10. The editor said he had bad news. “The company is going through a financial crisis due to the pandemic so we have to do this,” the sacked employee recalled Gairola telling him, referring to the impending layoffs.
About two hours later, he received his termination letter by email. It invoked clause 14 of the appointment letter to terminate his services “with immediate effect”. Further, the letter claimed that under the terms of employment, the company was required to give him just a month’s “basic salary” as severance, in addition “to the amount payable against your full and final settlement”.
Newslaundry examined the appointment letter of the employee. While clause 14 does allow the company to fire a staffer without notice or explanation, it only applies to those on probation. This former staffer was not on probation and, according to him, neither was any of the other 14. So the company had to give them at least a month’s notice before laying them off.
As for getting a month’s basic salary as severance, the former staffer said, “So, I checked my appointment letter. Clause 14 does not use the word ‘basic’, it only says ‘salary’.” His ‘basic salary’, he pointed out, is less than half his monthly remuneration. Same is true of his coworkers who have been laid off, he said.
Clause 14 does not use the word 'basic salary'.
A News Nation spokesperson, however, told Newslaundry that the sacked employees were served “proper notice period” and would be paid “as per the terms of employment”.
The sacked employees worked out of the News Nation office in Noida but many of them are from out of the city. And without steady income, they said, it will be difficult for them to live in the capital. They would have gone home but that’s not possible right now given the lockdown.
One of the staffers laid off is from Assam. His wife prematurely gave birth to twins on April 2, and they are on ventilators. He hasn’t been able to go home because of the lockdown. “The doctors there have advised us to keep the babies on ventilator support for two months,” he said. “I have to pay Rs 22,000 per day for the ventilators. Add in the cost of the medicine and the total is around Rs 30,000 a day. I haven’t told my wife about my firing. I don’t think she will be able to take the shock.”
He added, “At least, they should have informed us sometime before firing us or given us proper severance so that we could survive a few months. We in the media stand for so many things, but never for ourselves. Our situation is such that we can’t even reveal our identity while talking about this as it might harm our chances of getting a job in the future.”
Since it was launched in 2013, the News Nation English website has struggled for reach, said another sacked staffer who had joined the team in 2018. “Since the day I joined, there has been this constant problem of low traffic on their website. To fix it, they even hired a bunch of people but that didn’t help.”
In March, after the Indian authorities started issuing advisories against gatherings to contain the spread of coronavirus, the former employee said, they asked to work from home. But the company insisted they work onsite. “A few days before the janta curfew, the English digital team decided they would work from home because there was no transport to commute to the office. The team proposed that everyday one person would work from the office, while the rest would work remotely. The management refused initially but agreed to consider the proposal later.”
Asked if the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic was a reason for the mass layoffs, a spokesperson for the News Nation Network replied that it was a “routine business decision”.
“Being a Hindi TV channel, we have decided to convert our website from English to Hindi,” they said. “Hence we have discontinued services of the English digital team. They are being replaced by the Hindi team. This is a management decision that was taken much before the announcement of the lockdown. It was a routine business decision that was to be implemented from the new financial year, ie, April 1, 2020.”
Update: After this report was published, one of the sacked employees reached out to Newslaundry with his statement. "I have gone through your report that News Nation sacked its entire English digital team," the former staffer wrote, asking not to be named for fear of reprisal. "I read that the News Nation spokesperson said notice was given to all employees. Well, this is false information. Because I am one of the 15 employees to be sacked from News Nation and I was in office when me and my teammates were sacked. No notice was given to us. Me and my team members received only one mail from News Nation and that was the termination letter. If they are saying they had given us a notice, ask them for proof."