In his address to the nation on March 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi employers not to cut the salaries of their workers during the coronavirus crisis. The same day, the labour ministry had issued an asking all employers not to lay off staff or deduct their wages.
On March 23, the finance ministry sent out an office memo, directing government departments to pay temporary staff through the crisis even if they didn’t make it to work. Any “contractual, casual and outsourced staff” employed by the government “who is required to stay home in view of the lockdown order”, the memo stated, “shall be treated as ‘on duty’ during such period of absence and necessary pays and wages would be paid accordingly”.
In spite of all these directives, All India Radio has effectively put its casual employees out of work. According to data provided to the Lok Sabha in 2017, the radio network has nearly 13,810 casual employees across the country.
“Nearly 80 percent of casual employees have been affected,” claimed Hari Krishan Sharma, president of the AIR Casual Announcers and Comperes Union. “Here in Shimla, for example, of the 305 casual workers, only 10 have been called to work.”
On April 16, the reported that the radio network had put 80 casual employees at its FM Gold station in Delhi out of work. “These 80 jockeys have not been called to work since March 20, five days before the lockdown was imposed nationwide,” the daily reported, adding that “since they are paid for the shows they anchor”, they have essentially lost their livelihoods.
Responding to the report, the government’s Press Information Bureau claimed the affected workers were “not employees but freelancers”, hired for assignments as and when needed. “They are free to accept jobs elsewhere,” the PIB added.
AIR employees who are not in permanent jobs are indeed paid per show, but that is only part of the story. Many of them have been with the broadcaster for over 10 years and are thus eligible for permanent work. The Supreme Court’s of 2006 lays down that anyone who has served a government organisation for over a decade on “temporary basis” has to be granted permanent employment.
Citing this judgement, Purushotaman, a casual announcer who has been with AIR Kannur, Kerala, for nearly 24 years now, took the broadcaster to court, demanding regularisation of his service. The Kerala High Court ruled in his favour in 2012, but AIR challenged the order in the Supreme Court. The matter is pending.
Several casual announcers and radio jockeys Newslaundry spoke with from various parts of India complained that they haven’t received their salaries for January and February either, leave alone for March.
“See the irony of our situation. We should have been paid in advance for the months of March and April but we have not received our salaries even for January and February,” said Sharma, who has been with AIR Shimla for about 20 years.
They have written to Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati as well as the I&B ministry, apprising them of their precarious situation, Sharma said, but have not heard back so far. Prasar Bharati is an autonomous agency that oversees Doordarshan and AIR, India’s state broadcasters.
In December last year, long before the pandemic hit India, Sharma said representatives of his union had met Prakash Javadekar. The I&B minister assured them that their problems would be addressed in a few days “but nothing has been done yet”.
A permanent AIR employee in Delhi told Newslaundry they have not been affected by the lockdown and have been getting their salaries on time.
Prasar Bharati has also taken care of its contractual employees, who, unlike casual workers, get fixed monthly salaries. An office memo put out by the agency on March 30 directed Doordarshan and AIR to pay the contractual employees for March even if they failed to attend work. The note cited the finance ministry memo as the grounds for this direction, but dropped mention of casual workers.
“In view of prevailing extraordinary circumstances,” the Prasar Bharati memo said, “a number of contractuals may have to stay at home.” Ordinarily, this would result in the deduction of their wages, the note pointed out. But in view of the lockdown, they are to be treated as “on duty” and “the wages of such contractual engagees are to be paid”.
This “discriminatory attitude” rankles one of the FM Gold radio jockeys put out of work by AIR. “Casual employees are the ones running AIR, yet they are discriminating against us in this manner,” he complained.
The RJ said they have been paid for the shows they did in March before the lockdown was imposed, but they haven’t been given new work. Neither have they been told if they would get work once the lockdown is eased. For now, they have lost their sole source of income, he added.
He has been working with AIR as a casual RJ for 19 years but has still not been given a permanent position. “This is despite the Umadevi verdict of 2006 in which the top court directed all government establishments to regularize those employees who have been working for over 10 years so this practice of hiring and exploiting people could be put an end to,” he said.
Asked why AIR has put casual workers out of work despite the prime minister’s appeal and the labour ministry advisory, CEO Vempati said, “They are paid for the number of assignments done by them. Since their services are utilized for specific assignments on a need basis, there is no employer-employee relationship between them and All India Radio. They are free to accept employment in other public and private organizations.”
He added, “Several casual assignees continue to receive payments from All India Radio for assignments completed as may have been assigned to them during the lockdown period. There is no further entitlement for casual assignees to receive payments from All India Radio outside of assignments.”
The CEO did not respond to a question about how many casual employees across the radio network have been affected by the decision.