The Bombay High Court on Tuesday issued notice to the Centre, the State and ten different media groups while hearing a public interest litigation filed by Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists (MUWJ) and Nagpur Union of Working Journalists (NUWJ) against the "illegal and arbitrary" actions of newspapers/employers to lay off, force salary cuts on journalists/non-journalist employees during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Division bench of Justice SB Shukre and AS Kilor heard the PIL seeking directions to media groups to stop laying off employees, or cutting their salaries. Court issued notice to all respondents and made it returnable in four weeks.
Apart from the Union of India and State of Maharashtra, the petitioners have impleaded Indian Newspaper Society, Vidarbha Daily Newspapers, Lokmat Media, Times of India/Maharashtra Times, Dainik Bhaskar, Sakal Media, Indian Express/Lok Satta, Tarun Bharat, Nav Bharat Media group, Deshonnati Group and Punya Nagari Group as respondents in the matter.
Advocate Shreerang Bhandarkar appeared for MUWJ, Advocate Maneesh Shukla for NUWJ, Additional Solicitor General UM Aurangabadkar for the Union and Government Pleader SY Deopujari for the State.
According to the petition, ignoring the prime minister's appeal to not deprive employees of their livelihoods in such times and also the Labour Ministry's advisory in March, journalists are being unilaterally terminated, forced to resign, laid off from service, forced to sustain steep wage cuts and forced to accept changes in condition of service (converting regular or permanent employees into contractual ones).
Moreover, management of newspapers are threatening employees of termination, transfer to remote places etc, the PIL states.
Petitioners have also referred to specific instances of layoffs and salary cuts of employees working for the respondent media groups. They contend that this "inhuman and illegal" practice of the employers/newspaper owners is in violation of rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.
"Even after full-fledged services provided by journalists/mom-journalist employees during the Covid-19 pandemic by risking their lives and the lives of their near and dear ones, covering the news together with the corona warriors all across the city and region including containment zones" (Excerpt)
Furthermore, the PIL contends-
"Seeking to exploit the "Coronavirus pandemic crisis" to the hilt and best of their advantage they are further changing the conditions of service of the regular and confirmed journalist/non-journalist employees by offering to reappoint them on contractual basis by way of arrangement which they refer to as Cost to Company (CTC) wherein major part of the salary is performance linked pay (PLP)."
Petitioner unions also informed the Court that two wage boards were established for journalists and non-journalist employees called the 'Majithia Wage Board', recommendations of the said wage board was accepted by the Government of India in 2011.
However, newspapers are acting contrary to the statutory framework provided by the Working Journalists Act of 1955 and Majithia Wage Board, by resorting to and adopting illegal tactics to cut the salary of employees and introducing innovative ways of terminating the employees from their services, petitioners argued.