Prohibitive burdens

Prohibitive burdens

Wage board proposals

Newspapers usually shy away from writing about themselves or their industry for many reasons, including the fact that they only try to report -- and not make -- news. So while the Press takes up cudgels on behalf of every freedom trampled upon or an illegal or unconstitutional act across our vast land, it rarely complains about the conditions that it itself faces in the discharge of these duties.

It is high time that we share our problems and concerns, if not the burden, with our readers. Media, particularly the newspaper industry, is not like any other industry as it is rightly described as the fourth estate in parliamentary democracy. The credibility of newspapers is most vital and is the essence of democracy. But the very existence of the industry is under threat. We have apprehensions that a ‘divide and destroy’ policy is at work. This apprehension is rooted in the recommendations of the wage board for the industry. Perhaps very few people would know that the salary structure for working journalists as well as non-working journalists is decided by the wage board appointed by the government.

It is only the newspaper industry in India — not TV or radio or cement or sugar or any other industry — which is singled out for this discriminatory treatment. This has imposed a heavy financial burden on the industry for years. It may yet force many newspapers to shut down if the latest astronomical wage rates proposed by the board are implemented.

The Press is not — and should not be — immune from general laws relating to industrial relations or laws regulating payment of wages. But if it is singled out for imposition of prohibitive burdens, is it not violating the right to no discrimination guaranteed by Article 14 of our Constitution?

Most journalists in the country have opted out of the wage boards and hence the vast majority of the employees who remain are non-journalists. They, incidentally, are already in a high wage island, even before the yet to be accepted Justice Majithia recommendations (80-100 per cent hike coming on top of an unprecedented 30 per cent interim hike w.e.f. January, 2008) are implemented.

Justice Majithia’s recommendations have gone beyond jurisdiction into management areas such as compulsory and time-bound promotions, pensions, etc which are, in any case, against accepted market-determined employment conditions. The wage board has also adopted the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations without justifying how this can apply to newspapers which, unlike PSUs, do not get government subsidies/budgetary support, and whose employees cannot be equated with government servants!

Purposely biased

The very constitution of the wage board was purposely biased and its recommendations were based on data which was not representative of an industry cross-section. No studies for determining wages in comparable jobs in other industries or the capacity to pay by various newspaper organisations — or even the impact of the recommended additional burden on the industry —were carried out. No draft/tentative report was published/circulated for stakeholders’ views, who were also not given any opportunity to calculate the financial burden of the recommendations and suggest corrections.

Honestly speaking, nobody would like to slaughter the golden goose. Certainly not the employers, nor the employees. The wage board should protect/safeguard the interests of both. Till today, most of the responsible newspaper groups have implemented the recommendations of all the five wage boards by mutual agreements and in true letter and spirit. It is only this time that the Justice Majithia recommendations have gone beyond their jurisdiction and also recommended exorbitant pay hikes. This has been done without studying or considering the capacity to pay for an industry where, in any case, the prices of various inputs/raw materials, newsprint, ink, etc have been rising uncontrollably.

Moreover, there is stiff competition in the industry. It is difficult to raise the cover price — incidentally, India has the cheapest newspapers with the largest number of pages — and at the same time, advertisement rates have become more competitive. Even the government agency DAVP has a policy which discriminates against small and medium papers. The rates are much lower than the normal commercial card rates and the share in business is also much less.

As stated earlier, the majority of the responsible newspaper groups have implemented the wage board recommendations in the past. Even the interim recommendations of 30 per cent hike w.e.f. January, 2008 have been implemented. In any case, there is a provision for a periodic increase in the Variable Dearness Allowance. The VDA has increased by 394 points in the last eight years — which is on average more than Rs 600 per month even in the small category of newspapers.

In the final analysis, however, it seems that the entire report of the wage board was prepared by Justice Majithia in his individual capacity as there were no discussions with other members on the proposals which formed the final recommendations.

None of the representatives of the employers’ side voted or signed them, nor were they ever asked to do so. When the draft report was finally circulated in December 2010, members were given only a week to respond, which they pointed out would result in a serious miscarriage of justice. Of course, it did.

Long live the free Press!

(The writer is president, The Indian Newspaper Society, and managing editor, Janmabhoomi Group of Newspapers)

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