A simmering industrial battle at one of India’s leading daily newspapers, the Hindustan Times, is being taken up at international level as media unions raise the stakes in a dispute that has implications for the future of industrial relations across the country.
Five unions representing thousands of journalists, print staff and other workers in the country’s newspaper and press sector have reached a ground-breaking agreement to work together to fight what they say is a concerted attack by media owners on unions and workers’ rights.
After years of attacks on employment rights by media employers who ignore national wage deals and force workers to accept personal contracts, the action by the Hindustan Times to shed 362 permanent jobs in October and to hire a new, non-union workforce on worse terms has provided the spark for an industry-wide confrontation.
“The unions are angry and rightly so,” said Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, who met with union leaders in Delhi last week. “This latest attack threatens the whole industry. That is why unions have no choice but to stand and fight.”
The unions have asked the IFJ to take the case up with the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations agency responsible for labour standards.
“Having seen how employers have ruthlessly undermined union rights, it is impossible not to conclude that the Indian authorities are standing idly by as basic rights are being violated,” said White.
The IFJ has written to India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the labour minister Chandrashekhar Rao and the chief minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit where the Hindustan Times dispute is being fought. The IFJ also plans to raise the issue with the European Union. “Trade deals between Europe and India must be made against a background of respect for universal rights – and that includes the right to work in decent conditions and the right to join a trade union,” said White.
Union leaders plan a concerted public and political lobbying campaign after years of witnessing the erosion of traditional structures for fixing wage rates and working conditions through national structures jointly agreed by employers, unions and government. These days new media employees are expected to sign personal contracts that waive their right to the wage rates and working conditions agreed by the national wage board. In the process, they also give up their right to union representation.
“New employees have little option but to sign away their rights,” says Suresh Akhouri, President of the Indian Journalists Union one of five unions that at the weekend agreed to create a new union confederation to challenge the power of media owners. “All over the country employers are flouting the regulations. They want to rid themselves of all rules,” he says. “It is an alarming situation that threatens working conditions and lowers standards of journalism.”
Recently, in an unusually forthright statement, the Press Council of India, which usually speaks out on professional matters, warned that personal contracts could damage media quality.
Unions say the actions by the Hindustan Times actions are outside the law. Arguments are now being exchanged in the courts. They also say the dispute, in which the company used a wholly-owned subsidiary, set up to encourage foreign investment, as a device to sack staff and hire a new workforce, gives recently-relaxed rules on foreign investment a bad name.
They warn if the management succeed, it could set a precedent for wholesale dismissals and hiring policies that will be ruinous for the country’s already faltering structure of industrial relations and labour protection.
After years of uncertainty and decline, the unions in India’s media are ready to fight back. “We have no choice,” said Akhouri. “If they succeed at the Hindustan Times, the door will be opened to attacks on jobs and workers’ rights on a scale never seen before.”
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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries