‘Is this what I deserve after 8 years?’: Rajya Sabha TV lays off 37 employees

All 37 were either contractual or ad hoc employees, and received no warning or notice period.

BySupriti David
‘Is this what I deserve after 8 years?’: Rajya Sabha TV lays off 37 employees
Shambhavi Thakur
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On September 30, Rajya Sabha TV shunted out 37 employees without warning.

The channel is owned and operated by the Rajya Sabha, and covers proceedings in the upper house. The layoffs took place despite the government’s advisory in March to companies to not resort to layoffs, particularly of “casual or contractual workers”.

Of the 37, 20 were contractual employees, whose contracts mandate that they require “one month’s prior notice in writing”, although they are not eligible for reasons, compensation or gratuity if their services are terminated.

The rest were ad hoc employees, who work without any paperwork or security; they fill a single form at the end of the month (previously three months) to confirm whether or not they would continue working.

While there’s no clarity on the total number of employees at RSTV, the channel employs around 180 contractual employees, 40 ad hoc, and 15 freelancers. Started in 2011, it aims to provide “incisive analysis of parliamentary affairs”. Many of the laid-off employees have been with the channel for a long time.

This is the first the time the channel has seen layoffs of this magnitude.

Longtime employees laid off without notice

Syed Mohammed Irfan had been a contractual employee with the channel since its inception, hosting a show called Guftagoo. Ten years and 350 episodes later, he was notified on September 30 that he was “relieved of his duties”.

“Our contracts were renewed in June,” he said, explaining that the tenure of the contract arbitrarily changed over the years. “After that, I heard around the newsroom that our jobs would be secure till December at the very least...But now, I find myself, a member of the RSTV launch team, cast out without compensation, salary or leave encashment. Never before has something like this happened here, and no one has yet given us a reason for it.”

Several ex-employees told Newslaundry that they had been “assured” by the RSTV management that their jobs were secure.

Satish Kumar Rawat, a cameraman, said that Deepak Verma, the secretary-general of the Rajya Sabha, even visited the newsroom in March or April to tell employees there was no cause for worry.

“He told us that nobody would be laid off and if changes were going to be made, it would only happen in December,” said Rawat, a contractual employee who was terminated on September 30. “The editor-in-chief Manoj Pandey also said that if layoffs happened, it would begin with ad hoc employees.”

Rawat is the sole breadwinner of his family, providing for his wife, parents, and two children. He’s worked at RSTV for nine years, with “passion and honesty”, as he said. “Is this what I deserve?” he asked. “All the people who were laid off were some of the most hard-working people in the industry...Why us?”

Rahil Chopra, a senior video editor who was laid off, agreed. Chopra has 20 years of experience, of which he spent nearly 10 at RSTV. He said he was informed by editor-in-chief Pandey and his department head Vinod Kaul that he was being laid off despite there being “nothing wrong” with his work.

“I was told that I’m being laid off because my name was on a list left behind by the former editor-in-chief Rahul Mahajan,” Chopra said. “You cannot imagine how it feels, knowing that I had done good work but it was still not enough.”

Mahajan stepped down as editor-in-chief on September 20. He did not respond to Newslaundry’s requests for comment. No one from the editorial or administrative departments agreed to speak for this story.

Calling the layoffs “unfair”, Chopra added: “I was instrumental in making the legacy that RSTV stands on today. And they removed so many like us. For what? They could have reduced our salaries but they did not.”

Rawat had joined RSTV from CNN-IBN, hoping for a “noble and dignified place of work” given that the channel is tied to the Parliament. “But now, I am left with nothing,” he said. “If I am laid off after my experience and my work ethic, then what does it mean? Does hard work have no value?”

Cost-cutting and turf wars

In June, it was announced that RSTV and Lok Sabha TV would be merged, possibly by the end of the year, under the banner of Sansad TV. “Manpower and technical resources will also be integrated”, the Hindu had reported.

In the absence of any other information, some terminated employees speculated that the layoffs were a result of this project. Rawat claimed that the management wanted “people they can easily control” at Sansad TV, and “got rid of those who only focused on work”.

However, no layoffs have been reported at Lok Sabha TV.

However, Arvind Kumar Singh, who was laid off as a senior assistant editor, believes that the layoffs are likely a cost-cutting exercise. In a letter written to vice president Venkaiah Naidu, who is also the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Singh requested that the 37 terminated employees be reinstated.

In his letter, Singh suggested reducing by 10 percent the salaries of officers of the Rajya Sabha, and cutting by 50 percent the salaries of RSTV’s chief executive officer and other senior personnel.

“If the suggestions are implemented, then all 37 employees can be comfortably taken back,” he wrote. “Those who have been removed from RSTV are its finest members...I am not against the merger but once Sansad TV is created, how is it expected to run without a committed team of people who have our degree of hands-on experience in parliamentary reportage?”

Former employees told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that they were caught in the crossfire of a “turf war” between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Rajya Sabha Secretariat over who will gain control over Sansad TV.

“Since we [the 37 layoffs] were not aligned with any particular side and focused on our work, we became easily dispensable,” one of them claimed.

Shockingly, Singh’s letter to Venkaiah Naidu added that one of the employees was pregnant and on maternity leave when she was terminated. Another had filed a sexual harassment complaint to senior officials, he alleged. Both had two years left on their contracts when they were laid off.

Both the women employees told Newslaundry they had no problems with this being mentioned in the story, but said they did not want to speak any further.

‘No value for work’

Employees to RSTV are hired on the basis of a written exam, followed by an interview.

Ad hoc employees are caught in the uncomfortable position of having no paperwork or contracts that guarantee them any benefits. Yet, many of them have worked with the channel for years.

Vipin Chauhan has been an ad hoc employee with RSTV since October 2013. On September 25, he met editor-in-chief Pandey to discuss a promotion. One week later, he was laid off.

Chauhan said there’s very little transparency in the functioning of the channel, especially when it comes to hiring and promotion decisions. He has 12 years of experience in the industry.

“I have been working without a single day of leave since the beginning of March,” he said. “Throughout this pandemic I was made to do administrative work like getting press passes for the organisation’s vehicles alongside reporting. And yet last year when my father passed away and I requested for leave to perform his final rites, they refused to adjust it with my remaining leaves.”

In fact, Chauhan said, his salary was deducted since he had to go on leave anyway after his father’s death. “They told me it’s not in their policy to give such sanctions to ad hoc reporters,” he said. “Is this what I deserve after eight years?”

‘Hold them accountable’

Chauhan said that premier institutions like RSTV must be held accountable so that such “violation” of employee rights do not become the norm. Rahil Chopra said he wants “concrete action” taken against RSTV, “not just a statement of condemnation”.

“It is saddening to see institutions meant to safeguard the rights of a journalist like the Press Council of India be reduced to a voiceless letterhead with no teeth,” he said. “They can demand a lot of things, but who is going to listen? Will they be able to reinstate us? All I want now is my gratuity and compensation that I am owed.”

It should be noted that contractual employees are ineligible for gratuity or compensation, but the laid off employees have still been demanding it.

Syed Mohammed Irfan said transparency and employment security must be prioritised in the workplace in order to incentivise employees to work “whole-heartedly”.

“Employees must be given a proper performance review as well as a reasonable period of time before they are let go off,” he said. “ I am saddened that I worked hard for nine years and then suddenly without even a reason, I was let go.”

He believes that further layoffs are around the corner. They will not stop with us, he said.

Update: Some quotes were edited on request of Vipin Chauhan.

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