Why the labour beat is vanishing in India

Problems of the working class find little space in newspapers now. It wasn’t always the case.

WrittenBy:Prachi Pinglay-Plumber
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A few weeks ago, it started with hush-hush queries and conversations about salary cuts in private WhatsApp groups of journalists. Within a week or two, it was called a bloodbath in the media industry, with major media houses announcing widespread salary cuts, layoffs, and closure of editions. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition against the sackings and yet, this hasn’t made big headlines.

The silence on job cuts from editors and the management is in stark contrast with the acknowledgment and the sharing of experiences of how bleak the future is for journalists. Ironically, the same journalists, newspapers and media houses are reporting in depth about the economic slowdown, downsizing in companies of other sectors, and the need to push the economy since the Covid-19 pandemic swept over.

Apart from reports on the crisis of lakhs of migrant labourers walking hundreds of kilometres home, a look at the coverage suggests the need to push the economy at any cost is an accepted editorial line.

This indicates a deep disconnect between newsrooms and the labour class and their rights. This trend has been global: several newspapers have clubbed the labour beat with stories on infrastructure, for example, or do not recognise it as a major beat.

Perhaps because of this, the notification about the dilution of all labour laws in Uttar Pradesh for a period of three years — which was one of the many points in a press release in Hindi — almost went unnoticed. There were some news reports on the notification itself, including in the Indian Express. After a trade union leader alerted Somesh Jha, labour correspondent at Business Standard, there were also tweets, reports and discussions galore.

But this seemingly normal and expected newsgathering development isn’t as common anymore, especially when it comes to the issues of the working classes. Even as the “labour beat” has shrunk or even disappeared from the newsrooms of several newspapers or media houses, over the past two decades, veteran journalists rue the once vibrant and robust coverage of the working class.

How it used to be

After the lockdown was announced and the migrant exodus started from the cities they had built over years, reporters grappled with questions such as: does any law protect these workers in times of crisis? As if that wasn’t challenging enough, different states, one after the other, started making announcements for the dilution of different labour laws to give a push to the economy that has been crippled for various reasons – Covid-19 and the lockdown being the last straw.

Uttar Pradesh was one of them, along with Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Punjab.

According to Somesh Jha, media interest in labour laws revived in 2014 but soon petered out.

“Since 2014, there was a great opportunity to follow labour laws and other issues because of the government’s announcement of labour reforms,” he told Newslaundry. “In fact, there was a lot of interest after that and everyone did stories and followed the beat with a focus on labour laws and reforms for some time. But then, it went off the radar again.”

Jha made it a point to stay in touch with union leaders, he said, which is how he was alerted about the dilution of labour laws in Uttar Pradesh. His last few years of reporting on the labour beat allowed him to report better on the present crisis, something that sounds obvious but which gains significance in the absence of reporters tracking working class issues.

Veteran journalists remembered the late 1980s and early ‘90s as the period when the labour beat started to lose its ground, even as 1991’s economic liberalisation took a firm grip over the urban middle class, overall societal consciousness, and the country's socioeconomic policies.

Lina Mathias, who covered the beat in Mumbai in the 1980s, said the city, the newspapers, and the people were rather different from today. She likened the movement of migrants today to, in some way, the returning of workers to their villages in Konkan after the iconic mills strike and closure of mills in the early 1980s in then Bombay.

But that’s where the similarity ends. From labour leadership to coverage, everything was different.

“It was news even for English newspapers then. It was also symbiotic, as so much was going on,” Mathias said. “Leaders such as Comrade Dange, George Fernandes, and Sharad Rao were active. What will the reporters cover now?”

At the time, leaders like Ahilyabai Rangnekar and Mrinal Gore were relentless and active for all working class issues, from health to wages, Mathias said. This is before newspapers evaluated their priorities: labour stories moving to inside pages, and stories on the economy, liberalisation, and the aspirational middle class receiving more prominence.

A former labour correspondent, on the condition of anonymity, told Newslaundry: “We used to have daily press conferences, meetings. We used to go from one trade union office to the other. Editors would ask us what the story of the day was; there was always something happening on the beat.”

The role of labour leadership was a huge factor driving these reports. “They were a political force,” the correspondent said. “Who is the leader of the migrant labourers right now?”

This sounds harsh, but it’s an important reason echoed by several correspondents, who spoke about the systematic dismantling of organised or formal labour, which led to a rampant increase in contractual labour — who could not unionise. The organised, or formal, workforce now comprises only seven to 10 percent of the total workforce, and the trade unions that represent them are no longer a political force, though they continue to be affiliated with one party or the other.

The dominant Left-leaning trade unions of the 1970s and ‘80s are no longer as powerful. Interestingly, even the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, protested against the proposed dilution of labour laws last month.

The dwindling role of trade unions

The friction between the industry and workers is historic. However, unions were once able to negotiate, demonstrate, protest, resist and make an impact. The labour beat was not particularly encouraged, correspondents told Newslaundry, but labour reports were considered newsworthy due to the sheer impact seen in cities.

While labour stories regularly found space on news pages in the 1980s-90s, it was still a battle.

Vidyadhar Date, a former journalist and activist who covered the labour beat for the Times of India, said: “It was not easy to get these stories published even then. I remember attending the funeral of BT Ranadive, which was attended by thousands, but it did not find space in the paper.”

Geeta Seshu, a veteran journalist who covered the beat for several years, said the attitude of media houses was always anti-labour.

“Labour has always had bad press. They were considered disruptive and anti-growth and wanted to demonise labour,” Seshu said. “For example, when any protests happened– be it the teachers or doctors — if there were any rail roko or rasta roko, they were considered to be disruptive.”

Seshu said this was the case even before economic liberalisation took place.

“By the time neoliberalism kicked in, the notion that labour is anti-progress became stronger. Media houses had edits and opeds about labour reforms,” she said. “They are termed as reforms but they aren’t really for the workers. In fact, if you see our labour courts, they are so destructive that they push labour rights back by decades. Now, the ease of doing business is taking it to another level. However, among the artists, writers and film writers, there was a lot of recognition that labour was important. That reality was not ignored.”

But management would take union leaders and their issues seriously, Date said, and the unions played an important role. “The trade unions ensured internal democracy within the factories,” he said. “No decision that was potentially harmful for the workers could be taken just like that.”

As a result, reporters would often rely on unions and union leaders for information on developments related to labour rights. Several political leaders had strong union backgrounds, so the coverage of their protests, activities and negotiations may have been a mainstay for labour reporters. But reports went beyond the obvious, and covered labour ministry policies, worker compensation and health benefits, working conditions in factories, and even worker festivals and community living.

Changing attitudes towards the working class

In 2012, a major strike took place at a Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar, Haryana. One official died. This, and the violence surrounding the strike that led to many jobs being lost, became a focal point for the strike’s coverage by the media.

Though the many facets of the strike were covered in detail, Anjali Deshpande, who has been researching the strike, noted that there were also a lot of stories on whether factory output would be affected. As a result, focus often shifted from workers’ rights to output and losses.

Rajesh Joshi, a journalist who worked for Jansatta and later the BBC World Service, said the change in atmosphere and attitude towards the working class must be understood.

“There were times when unions would hold joint press conferences and everything would be covered. In fact, the unions in the newspapers themselves were so strong,” Joshi said. “Later, when I joined the BBC and was in London, I remember the union had 100 percent membership. But here, things had changed.”

The shift predominantly came through the middle class.

“Neoliberalism meant a change in political climate; the view that trade unions are too strong and an obstruction in business. There wasn’t enough working class consciousness in society as well,” said Sujata Madhok, a former journalist and general secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists. “When we say the atmosphere changed, it changed in the media too. At one time, being a political journalist was what reporters aspired towards. That was the best thing to do. Slowly with the advent of business papers, that changed too.”

She added: “And the percentage of formal labour decreased consistently down to a single digit.” That meant a further reduction in the media space for their issues.

The decline in percentage of organised labour meant contractual labour becoming a mainstay even in big companies and factories – for permanent jobs too. That meant no “netagiri” and no unionising, and no public discourse for any negotiations related to workers’ rights.

“We were on the cusp of liberalisation but even earlier, the focus on the labour issues was top down, say from a policy or ministry point of view. Journalism was focused on the middle class or their readers,” said Aakar Patel, former editor of Mid-Day in Mumbai. “Post 1998-99, changes were part of the trajectory of that shift towards ‘invisiblising of labour’. Bombay Times was launched, even Bollywood changed, the idea of loyalty to a company was reversed.”

Editors and reporters spoke of the lack of empathy and how, in that sense, the dilution of laws for “ease of doing business” is not unexpected. Seshu said that the reporters had strong linkages with students, workers and teachers. In the modern digital fast-paced age of reporting, that seems to have been compromised. “That’s why there has been so much bad journalism. People are angry because they see no empathy in the coverage.”

However, the recent crisis of migrants having to walk for hundreds and thousands of kilometres has stirred something. This sense of empathy might be returning, Seshu said, which is a good sign.

“I hope the sense of solidarity and reaching out comes back, because of what the country is going through. We have to go beyond and ask why,” she said. “We only report on how and what and when. We have to understand that to ask for your rights is not wrong.”

Update: A previous version of this story said that Rajesh Joshi worked for the BBC. This has been corrected to the BBC World Service. The piece also implied that news reports on Uttar Pradesh's labour laws emerged only after Business Standard's correspondent was alerted to the fact. This has been corrected.


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Also see
article imageHow We “Make In India”: Labour Laws In Our Country
article imageA crisis of capital: Why migrant workers can’t be ‘managed’ with food and money


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