As the coronavirus pandemic started spreading across India, the Maharashtra government on March 20 saying no employer should terminate their workers, or reduce their wages.
“The termination of employees from the job or reduction in wages in this scenario would further deepen the crises and will not only weaken the financial condition of the employee but also hamper their morale to combat their fight with this epidemic,” said the order signed by the labour commissioner, Mahendra Kalyankar.
It was a timely move, considering and have closely followed the virus’s spread around the world.
The Sakal Media Group didn’t heed the government’s order. The company, which is one of Maharashtra’s leading media groups, has asked 15 employees to submit their resignations and leave by March 31. All of them work in the editorial division of Sakal Times – five each in design and sports, four in the news bureau, and one in features.
Several of these employees spoke to Newslaundry, saying they had been asked to resign and not report for work from next month. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of the company withholding their salaries and severance packages. Some of them are the only salaried members of their families.
The company, however, denied laying off employees.
“It’s like a game of fear. The person getting sacked is called to the conference room by the editor’s personal assistant. The HR manager then arrives with a paper in hand,” said one of the employees.
This happened about a week before the statewide lockdown was declared on March 23. The employee said the layoffs continued until March 24, when the staff started working from home.
“The chief manager for human resources, Vasudev Medankar, tells the employee to submit their resignation by March 31, their last working day. He tells the employee this is not for performance reasons but cost-cutting,” the employee said. “The moment the lights go on in the conference room, employees fear they will be the ones to be sacked.”
A news bureau staffer who was fired on March 17, said six others were terminated the same day. “The moment I entered the conference room, the HR manager told me, ‘You might know why I have called you’,” the employee said.
The manager told her, “We don’t have any complaints about your performance but we’re downsizing as we cannot afford all employees.” The employee was instructed to submit her resignation by March 31.
“I don’t know how I will manage,” she told Newslaundry. “I’m the sole earner in my family and it will be difficult to manage without a salary during the lockdown. The company only offered one month’s severance to the employees who have been asked to resign. It’s not an easy task to get a job.”
Another news bureau staffer confirmed that the reason given for her termination was “downsizing”. “I even asked them if they have any problems with my performance. They said no, it’s all about cost-cutting,” she said. “It was very sudden. My main concern is we won’t get a job now because of the coronavirus crisis. We can’t apply anywhere because of the lockdown. No company will hire in these times. The future is very bleak.”
Another employee said they were sacked at “very short notice”. “It will be difficult for us to find a new job as everything is shut. We won’t be called for interviews because nobody responds in a lockdown,” she said. “Even if I apply in a field outside journalism, I won’t get a job in this situation. Companies won’t even start hiring immediately after the coronavirus situation calms down either.”
“They asked us to leave immediately,” said one of the staffers let go from the news bureau. “No one will give us jobs during this crisis. Sakal Times offered severance of only one month, what difference does that make?”
A sub editor who was asked to submit her resignation said the company should have given them a buffer period. “Usually, when an employee resigns, she has to serve a notice period of three months. But they have not given us any time,” she said. “I don’t know how to cope in this situation.”
One of the sacked designers said his family depends on his income. “I have small children and nobody will give me a new job during the lockdown. They have given one month’s severance, how will I manage with it?” he asked. “We only have time till March 31. I told them I can’t resign and I need some time, but they didn’t entertain my request.”
Newslaundry contacted Vasudev Medankar to ask him about the layoffs. “Nothing of the sort happened. Holidays are going on and in the last 10 days, nobody has been asked to resign,” he replied. “Before that, we may have informed non-performers, and those whose probation had finished, whether they would continue with the company or not. In that matter too, we told them we would take a month to decide.”
None of the sacked employees, however, are on probation. 12 of them have been with the company for between two and 10 years and three of them have been working with the company from 1 to 2 years. And none had been appraised for their performance in the weeks before being called into the conference room.
Abhijit Pawar, the managing director of the Sakal Media Group, also denied the employees had been fired.
“That’s not true. We have sacked no one,” he claimed. “In a crisis like this, who would do something like that? If someone claims otherwise, it is unfortunate. People are taking advantage of the situation. This is a time when all of us need to be responsible and do our best.”
Pawar added: “It seems you’re interested only in negative news and false allegations...You can go ahead and print what you like.”
Asked if the Maharashtra government would act against employers that violate its order, Mahendra Kalyankar, the labour commissioner, said, “We have issued this directive on the orders of the labour and employment department of the government of India. Till now we haven’t received any complaint. Maharashtra has a nice culture. I don't think anybody will disobey our directions.”
When specifically asked about the termination of Sakal Times employees, he said, "If they approach us, we will definitely take the required action.”