'Made to feel unwanted’: Pregnant employee says Assamese TV channel forced her to quit
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'Made to feel unwanted’: Pregnant employee says Assamese TV channel forced her to quit

Ranjita Rabha claims that Prag News even denied her maternity leave.

By Ayan Sharma

Published on :

A pregnant employee’s resignation has landed Prag News, an Assamese TV news channel, in a raging controversy. Ranjita Rabha quit on May 5, allegedly after being pressured by the management to do so. Rabha was a reporter but, because of her pregnancy, had been working on the desk since late January. This apparently did not go down well with her managers, who needed “agile people” at the workplace.

After India went into lockdown to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in late March, Rabha said she was twice told by her editors to stay home and rest. In the first week of May, she was suddenly told to put in her papers.

Rabha, who is into the fifth month of her pregnancy, did not speak about it until May 19, when in a social media post, she accused the TV channel of forcing her to resign. She further alleged that her request for maternity leave, even without pay, was flatly denied.

Rabha’s post triggered a storm. Several journalists from Assam promptly condemned the channel as did the Indian Journalists Union. “The IJU expresses serious concern at the dismissal of the services of Ranjita Rabha by the management of Prag News AM Production Ltd,” the national union said in a statement.

Calling it a case of “gender discrimination” and “unacceptable”, the statement added, “IJU demands the management of Prag News immediately reinstate Rabha. We also demand that the company extend all facilities, including maternity benefits, to its employees as permissible under the law of land.”

The Network of Women in Media, India, expressed their “deep shock” and “concern” at the way Rabha was made to quit. “The NWMI strongly condemns discrimination against female journalists over pregnancy and motherhood,” it said in a statement. “Such attitudes and policies only serve to create a hostile environment at the workplace.”

Speaking to Newslaundry, Rabha said in mid-April she went to the office for the first time after the lockdown was imposed, and did her work as usual. “But the managing editor once again suggested that I rest at home. I thought that they were genuinely concerned about my health , so I complied.”

On April 30, the managing editor, Pranay Bordoloi, called her. “He asked me if I had got a call from the management,” she said. She hadn’t, Rabha told him. He asked her to come to the office the next day. Rabha went and did her share of work, editing scripts and doing voiceovers for a number of stories.

When she went to work again the following day, she was informed it would be her last day. “In the afternoon, I was told by the managing editor that the management didn’t expect me to continue due to pregnancy,” she claimed. “When I asked him if I could avail of maternity leave, the managing editor asked me to speak with chairman Sanjive Narain.”

Rabha called up Narain the next day, and he confirmed what the managing editor had said. “I was told my services were no longer required due to my pregnancy,” she said.

She asked to take maternity leave but Narain refused outright. He said the channel didn’t have that “facility”. “He asked me to resign immediately. I was shocked,” Rabha said.

She was made to feel “unwanted” after working nearly 10 years for the channel, Rabha said. “I was left with no option but to quit as the owner had already made up his mind,” she explained.

Asked about Rabha’s allegations, Narain, the TV channel’s owner, told Newslaundry she was asked to resign because they could not “risk her health”.

Since Rabha was primarily a reporter, she needed to be in the field, he added. “But now that she is pregnant in this time of Covid, can anybody guarantee her wellbeing to me if she goes out?”

Couldn’t she continue working on the desk then? “Her attendance at work has been very low,” he replied, and accused Rabha of displaying “professional indiscipline” in the past five months.

But Rabha was told by her editors to stay home and rest? Narain expressed his ignorance about this reason for the reporter’s less than adequate attendance. “Ask her to give notifications, if any. We don’t have any knowledge of all this,” he said. “The editors give it in writing if there is any change.”

A senior staffer at the TV channel confirmed that Rabha hadn’t attended work regularly since around mid-January. Though her request to be shifted to the desk had been accepted by the management, she would miss work from time to time. “But I think it was somewhat natural in her condition. She would fall sick, or needed to visit the doctor,” said the staffer who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “Whenever she came, she was diligent with her work.”

Why was Rabha denied maternity leave? Narain claimed his TV channel didn’t have a paid maternity leave policy, but they had asked Rabha to take leave and return to work after her child’s birth. “She got enough time to do that but she didn’t. Yet, she was mostly absent,” Narain alleged, adding that Rabha “acted as per her convenience”, so her social media outrage was “ridiculous”.

Narain didn’t explain why Prag News didn’t offer paid maternity leave when it was mandated by the law. As the NWMI noted in its statement, the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act, 2017 provides for paid maternity leave of 12 weeks, in addition to paid leave and extension of leave without pay or work from home arrangements.

“The NWMI is shocked at the blatant disregard for the law by Prag News. Its contention that the organisation has no provision for paid leave or any other facility for maternity leave is patently illegal and indefensible,” the body said. “Every establishment in this country is governed by the Maternity Benefits Act and Prag News is not above the law of the land.”

It seems there is more to Rabha’s resignation. A senior staffer who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal claimed that it was “part of a larger retrenchment plan”. Nearly six months ago, the employee explained, a rival channel sacked over 30 percent of its employees and then slowly revived its TRP. The top brass at Prag News bought it as a success formula. “Discussions began and they were looking to retain a smaller staff to enhance competition and productivity,” he claimed.

Once advertising revenues nosedived after India was locked down, the employee said, it gave the management a pretext to downsize. “A list was prepared around that time of around 25 percent of the employees to be sacked, covering people across departments like reporting, production and videography.”

Accordingly, several employees have been laid off over the past two months on different grounds. “Rabha was among them,” he said.

After the list of names to be laid off was drawn up, the employee claimed, the editorial team objected to its scale. “Eventually, the target was brought down to about 15 percent of the nearly 100 staffers at the channel. At least 10 employees have left so far. While some left on their own after that list surfaced, others were asked to resign on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance. It has been done gradually and carefully, not at one go, in order to avoid any uproar.”

An employee who has been asked to put in his papers confirmed this. A “representative of the management” called him while he was at work on May 10 and told him to resign as soon as possible. “I was told my performance wasn’t up to the mark, therefore I could not continue,” said the staffer who has worked at the channel for more than four years. In all, five members of his department, nearly 25 percent of its strength, have been told to quit in recent weeks. “It has happened in other departments too,” he added.

Several Prag News employees Newslaundry spoke with maintained the TV channel did not provide severance to any of the employees laid off. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, media organisations across the country have laid off staff. Many of them have offered some financial assistance to the retrenched employees. For example, when the Telegraph shut its Guwahati and Jharkhand editions a few days ago, the daily offered the staffers who lost their jobs up to nine months’ basic pay as severance.

Prag News has no such plan. “We were paid only for the time we worked, not a penny more,” said an employee who was made to quit earlier this month. “Bad days await us since we won’t get jobs anytime soon.”

UPDATE: After this story was published, Sanjive Narain, the chairman of Prag News, wrote in clarifying that his company has "256 employees in house plus 35 reporters out station".

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