‘They wanted to get rid of us’: Over 50 people laid off as Sakal Times closes down

The employees were blindsided, even as the company, owned by Sharad Pawar's family, refused to consider a higher severance package.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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In March, when Newslaundry reported on Sakal Times asking 15 of its employees to resign, the managing editor of the Sakal Media Group told this reporter that the news was “not true” and “unfortunate”.

“People are taking advantage of the situation,” Abhijit Pawar said of reports on the layoffs at the Pune-based English daily. “It seems you’re interested only in negative news and false allegations...You can go ahead and print what you like.”

Pawar even threatened this reporter with legal action for publishing the report.

Less than three months later, Sakal Times laid off its entire editorial section — around 50-60 employees — and shut down its print edition. Only its editor, Madhav Gokhale, did not lose his job. He had recently joined the paper from Sakal Marathi and has now moved back. The paper’s web team was also retained — two employees who upload stories to the website, and three or four employees who were hired in April to write for the website.

The newspaper’s employees received phone calls from Gokhale’s personal assistant on May 26, asking them to report to the office the next day. On May 27, at a meeting at the Sakal Times office in Shivaji Nagar, Pune, employees were told three things: that the newspaper was shutting down, that they were requested to resign, and that they would receive one month’s severance.

Sakal Times is not the only media house hit hard by the economic slowdown and the Covid-19 outbreak. In the last three months, dozens of media houses have laid off employees or rolled out salary cuts, including the Times Group, HT Media, the Telegraph, The Hindu, and NDTV. Others, like the Quint, have sent employees on indefinite leave without pay.

But employees at Sakal Times feel blindsided. After March’s layoffs and subsequent salary cuts, they presumed their jobs were, at least, safe. They were wrong.

And since the media house is owned by the family of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, many of them feel betrayed that Pawar and his family did not step in to save their jobs.

Refusal to pay higher severance

The meeting on May 26 started at 4 pm, attended by all the employees and top management, including chief executive officer Uday Jadhav, chief operating officer Mahendra Pisal, and the human resources and accounts teams. Only managing director Abhijit Pawar was not present. According to employees present at the meeting, CEO Uday Jadhav announced that the newspaper was closing.

“He asked us to resign and in compensation, offered us one month’s salary,” said an employee on the condition of anonymity. “We asked for three months’ salary but they didn’t agree. Later, we met the CEO again and another meeting was held in the conference room. Even after intense bargaining, the management didn’t approve three months’ severance. The CEO called Abhijit Pawar but he refused too.”

A colleague broke down, the employee remembered.

“Many of my colleagues said they have to pay their children’s school fees and it will be difficult to get a job during the lockdown,” the employee continued. “The company just offered the full salary for May (for which we worked), refunded our April salary (the company had deducted 50 percent for April), and paid the salary for June.”

Employees told Newslaundry that they were asked to sign a resignation letter on May 27.

“But we refused and resigned through emails to Tulsi Daultani, the head of HR, to put things on record,” the employee said. “We wanted to put things on record. We wrote that we are resigning because the management asked us to do so…”

However, when staffers were called on June 1 to receive their full and final settlement, the letters accompanying the settlement said they had resigned of their own accord, the employee said.

He added: “They were working at such a speed, as if they wanted to get rid of us as soon as possible.”

A reporter with Sakal Times said that despite repeated requests, the company refused to email the employees their severance packages or details of the paper shutting down.

A senior employee at Sakal Times said that when he received the phone call on May 26, he had “an intuition that they are up to something related to the layoffs”.

“I was unable to sleep properly that night, as I was worried about how I’d get a new job in the pandemic,” he said. “The next day in the meeting, we were told by the management that the paper is being closed due to financial constraints.”

The senior employee corroborated that a three months’ severance was refused. “It has become very difficult to run my home. I have to pay the school fees of my kid” he said. “I don’t know how I’ll arrange all these things. I have been in Pune for a decade but I think I may have to leave the city now.”

Sakal Times would only pay very meagre salaries to its journalists, he pointed out. “If your family is dependent on you, you can’t save much with that salary. My landlord has also asked me to vacate my apartment if I can’t pay him the rent by July.”

Another reporter with the newspaper said they had heard “rumours” about layoffs a week before, but they did not expect the paper to shut down immediately. “It was a shock to us,” she said. “The severance package that they have offered us is way too low, considering the situation outside, when companies are hardly hiring...Despite asking them and explaining the situation to them several times, the management did not budge. We were helpless…”

Concern for others, not employees

The Sakal Media Group told employees the paper was shutting down due to “financial constraints”. However, in March, the company contributed Rs 25 lakh towards Covid relief. The website for its social foundation urges others to “donate generously”.

In April, managing director Abhijit Pawar, who is also the chairman of AP Globale, an “impact-driven group”, partnered with the Pune-based Mylab, the first Indian company to develop Covid-19 testing kits. At the time, Pawar said: “We are honoured to stand by our prime minister and our government while supporting them during these trying times. This partnership will ensure we do our bit to help in this time of crises."

Sakal Times employees asked Newslaundry why this concern wasn’t extended to them.

“We begged the management to pay us at least three months’ severance. We even said we’re ready to work on half our salaries for the next six months, just so we get a breathing period to search for new jobs,” a senior employee said. “But they did not consider our requests.”

The Sakal Media Group is owned by the family of NCP chief Sharad Pawar; more specifically, his brother Pratap Pawar is the chairman, and Pratap's son Abhijit Pawar is the group managing editor.

“Sharad Pawar is fondly called ‘Janata Raja’, or the king who knows everything about his people. But he’s unaware, or is deliberately ignoring, what’s happening in his own backyard,” the senior employee said.

He added that Supriya Sule, Sharad Pawar’s daughter and an MP from Baramati, is also a director of the Sakal Media Group. “Supriya Sule formed a WhatsApp group to address the problems of migrant workers, students, and distressed people during the Covid-19 outbreak,” he said. “She showed her concern towards people who did not get help. But when she was told about the closure of Sakal Times, and the layoff of 60 employees, she just said, ‘Oh.’ This shows how insensible these people are.”

A reporter with the paper told Newslaundry that his only reason to join Sakal Times was because it claimed to be the largest media organisation in the state in terms of sales. “But it was unfortunate to see employees with 15 years of experience being sacked in a few minutes,” he said. “The organisation should have kept us in the loop while taking this decision. There was no communication, either from the editor or from the management, before we were asked to resign.”

He added that the company was still hiring content developers for its digital platform. “The company CEO did ask us to look for opportunities in other verticals in the same company, but insisted that we submit our resignations before applying to other verticals.”

The newspaper’s staffers were also troubled because the government had clearly stated that salaries and jobs shouldn’t be cut during the lockdown. “Here, the entire office was shut down,” a senior journalist said. A reporter who was laid off told Newslaundry: “When we needed the company’s support the most, we did not get it.”

Newslaundry asked Mahendra Pisal, the COO of the Sakal Media Group, about the layoffs at Sakal Times. Pisal said: “We have not asked them to resign. They resigned on their own. They themselves submitted the resignations...Why do you have to do such stories? All media companies are shutting down, why are you only after Sakal Times?”

Newslaundry reached out to Abhijit Pawar, the managing director of the Sakal Media Group, for comment. This story will be updated if a response is received.

‘This termination is unlawful’

Newslaundry contacted Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising to ask if the layoffs at Sakal Times are legal.

“I am surprised by this behaviour of the employer,” Jaising said. “There is no question that journalists in the print media are covered by the Working Journalists Act. Hence, this termination is unlawful. The non-journalist workers will be covered by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which provides elaborate procedures for retrenchment for lack of work and for closure. None of these procedures appear to have been followed.”

The Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, states that the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act apply to journalists. In case of retrenchment, the Working Journalists Act enhances protections for journalists above and beyond the protections offered by the Industrial Disputes Act.

For example, while Section 25F of the Industrial Disputes Act gives a notice period of only one month for the retrenchment of a workman, Section 3(2) of the Working Journalists Act puts it at three months. If the person is at the level of an editor, the notice period is six months.

The law provides journalists with 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. The Working Journalists Act provides crucial protection for journalists against arbitrary termination.

In 2017, former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi passed an order to extend the benefits of the Majithia Wage Board to contractual employees. At the time, many newspapers came out with employment contracts to supersede the benefits extended by the Supreme Court. However legally, these newspapers cannot use employment contracts to deny benefits under the Wage Board order.


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