Print edition : November 05, 2004

Hindustan Times Limited's decision to dismiss 362 workers draws criticism from trade unions.

in New Delhi

IN an unprecedented move in the history of the media industry, 362 workers of the K.K. Birla-owned Hindustan Times Limited were dismissed from service on October 3. The workers, who were employed with the printing unit of Hindustan Times House, New Delhi, are now on an indefinite protest. Hindustan Times Limited brings out two dailies, Hindustan Times in English and Hindustan in Hindi.

The workers learnt that they were no longer part of the organisation when they reported for work on October 3. The termination notice, issued by Hindustan Times Limited, was put up on the gate of a heavily guarded H.T. House. The notice said: "The workmen working in the Printing Undertaking are hereby informed that the ownership of the Printing Undertaking of the Hindustan Times Ltd. at H.T. House, has been transferred to and taken over by H.T. Media Ltd, w.e.f. 2nd October, 2004 under an Agreement dated 1st October, 2004. Since H.T. Media Ltd., while taking over the ownership of the Printing Undertaking, has decided not to take over the services of the workmen working in the Printing Undertaking (list attached - Annexure A), their services would come to an automatic end on the transfer of the Printing Undertaking w.e.f 3rd October as per the provisions of Section 25 (FF) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Individual letters in this regard have been sent to the concerned workmen by Speed Post A.D. along with the cheques of the requisite compensation under Section 25 FF of the Industrial Disputes Act [IDA], 1947. The other legal dues of the workmen shall be settled in due course." The notice is signed by A.C. Sethi, Deputy General Manager, Human Resource Development.

Section 25-FF of the IDA, dealing with compensation to workers in case of transfer of undertaking, states: "Where the ownership or management of an undertaking is transferred, whether by agreement or by operation of law, from the employer in relation to that undertaking to a new employer, every workman who has been in continuous service for not less than one year in that undertaking immediately before such transfer shall be entitled to notice and compensation in accordance with the provisions of Section 25-F, as if the workman had been retrenched.

"Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to a workman in any case where there has been a change of employers by reason of the transfer, if - a) the service of the workman has not been interrupted by such transfer; b) the terms and conditions of service applicable to the workman after such transfer are not in any way less favourable to the workman than those applicable to him immediately before the transfer; and c) the new employer, is under the terms of such transfer or otherwise, legally liable to pay to the workman, in the event of his retrenchment, compensation on the basis that his service has been continuous and has not been interrupted by the transfer."

The Hindustan Times Employees Union (HTEU), which is leading the agitation against the retrenchment, is a composite union, consisting of non-journalists and journalists. The HTEU claimed that the workers were denied entry into the company premises on October 3 after the abrupt lockout of the printing unit at H.T. House.

According to S.N. Sinha, general secretary of the union, the management planned the illegal retrenchment when it started new printing units in Gurgaon (in Haryana) and Noida (in Uttar Pradesh) and employed new workers under different titles. He said: "The services of the employees, with decades of loyalty and integrity, working in H.T. House premises on Kasturba Gandhi Marg were not utilised, but a fresh workforce was recruited on contract on meagre salary in violation of all labour laws, including the recommendations of the statutory Wage Board constituted by the Government of India."

The union members claimed that when they expressed their apprehensions to the management, they were assured that the new printing units were part of an expansion and modernisation plan and that the workers on the K.G. Marg premises would not be declared surplus or victimised. The HTEU alleged that apart from breaching these agreements, the management, as part of its strategy to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), floated H.T. Media Ltd. as its wholly-owned subsidiary. The management, the union alleges, transferred 15.38 per cent of the subsidiary's equity to an Australian company, Henderson Asia-Pacific Equity Partner ILP, although management and the majority stake of H.T. Media Ltd. continues to be with Hindustan Times Ltd.

Sinha and other office-bearers said that they were shocked when the management informed them that its subsidiary had withdrawn the printing work from Hindustan Times Ltd. The union filed an application with the Assistant Labour Commissioner, Delhi government, against what it said was the illegal and anti-labour activities of the management. The Assistant Labour Commissioner passed an order on September 16 declaring the management's activities illegal and called upon it not to change the service conditions of the workers until the disposal of the dispute.

Sinha says the management pre-empted the Commissioner's proceedings by claiming that H.T. Media Ltd. refused to accept the services of the workers of Hindustan Times Ltd. "We were told that H.T. Media Ltd. was started as a strategy to attract FDI and we supported the move on the assurance that no worker would be declared surplus. In July 2000 itself, they assured us that no printing work would be shifted to any outside agency except for exigencies at work," Sinha said.

How can a subsidiary company with a minor equity holding dictate terms to the larger share-holder, he asked. "It is the same company. There is no change at all in the nature of work. They have transferred the work to H.T. Media Ltd. Let them deny that the chairman of H.T. Media Ltd. and Hindustan Times Ltd. is not K.K. Birla."

The union has called upon several journalist and non-journalist fora to support its struggle. So far, the Delhi Union of Journalists, the Indian Journalists' Union, the All India Newspaper Employees' Federation, the Delhi State Newspaper Employees' Federation, the Press Trust of India Union and the United News of India Union are in solidarity to the HTEU's struggle. S.K. Pande, president, Delhi Union of Journalists, said that the termination was unprecedented in the newspaper industry and that it had to be fought "tooth and nail".

The dismissed include those who have worked in the organisation for more than 25 years; the majority of them are the sole income earners in their families. Two office-bearers of the union, assistant secretary Bhoopat Singh and assistant treasurer Om Prakash, are also among those dismissed. "We want our jobs back. None of us has accepted the cheques sent to us by the management," says Bhoopat Singh.

The union feels that its members have been targeted, as it has been, along with other unions elsewhere, opposing the increasing trend in newspaper organisations to bring employees under the contract system. "The whole working condition will change if this were to happen. Once they succeed here, this will be replicated everywhere," said Sinha. "Legally, we know we can win. We will win. This is the first casualty of allowing FDI in the print media. And this is a blow to the working class," he said.

AN informed source in the management, who did not want to be named, said the workers were not retrenched. According to him, the printing undertaking has been sold and transferred to H.T. Media Ltd. under an agreement, in accordance with Section 25-FF of the IDA. While taking over the ownership of the undertaking, H.T. Media Ltd. decided not to retain the services of the workers in the printing undertaking, which option is open to them under Section 25. Hence their services have come to an automatic end as per the Section. The source said that the Supreme Court had held that cessation of services, as a result of the transfer of undertaking, does not constitute retrenchment.

The management source explained that while taking over the media business, under an agreement dated August 15, 2003, H.T. Media Ltd. agreed to retain all the employees of Hindustan Times Ltd., including those working in the printing undertaking in H.T. House, with their existing terms and conditions and continuity of service. Out of a total 3,200 people employed across India, about 2,400 employees accepted this offer. However, the source said, union members at the Delhi centre declined the offer. As a result, Hindustan Times Ltd. signed a service agreement to hand over printing services to H.T. Media Ltd. up to August 2, 2004. According to the source, H.T. Media Ltd. terminated this agreement on August 2, 2004, on the grounds that printing by Hindustan Times Ltd. was economically unviable and since then the entire printing of newspapers is being done by H.T. Media Ltd. itself. Workers of the printing undertaking at H.T. House were sitting idle since August 2.

The HTEU avers that the workers were not opposed to working in the printing presses at Gurgaon and Noida. The termination notice, said Sinha, itself indicated that the workers had not declined to work and it was the management that decided to dismiss them. Dev Roye, national secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that there appeared to be no major situational change in the activities of the group. It did not appear to have closed down and neither were the activities related to the newspaper altered. Why should the workers suffer? he asked. Roye said that if permanent employees were dealt with in such a manner in a leading segment of the newspaper industry, it was a matter of concern.

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