India’s highest court on April 9 ruled that journalists and non-journalists of newspapers and news agencies are entitled to a pay hike under the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board. Dismissing pleas by various owners seeking a review of its earlier judgment, the Supreme Court directed publishers to implement the recommendations of the latest wage board proceedings from this month on.

 By Nava Thakuria

The bench comprising Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoiand Justice Shiva Kirti Singh ruled that the wages as revised ‘would be payable from 11 November, 2011’, when the Indian Union government notified the recommendations of the Majithia Board.

“All the arrears up to March 2014 shall be paid to all eligible employees in four equal installments within a period of one year and continue to pay the revised wages from April 2014 onwards,” the verdict noted. The latest report of national wage board for working journalists and other newspaper employees under the leadership of Justice G.R. Majithia was presented to the Union government in New Delhi on 31 December , 2010.

“A fine, fair and judicious balance has been achieved between the expectations and aspirations of the employees and the capacity and willingness of the employers to pay,” said Justice Majithia in a press interview. He added that the report made suggestions for the consideration of the government on issues like post-retirement benefits, a forward looking promotion policy, measures to improve enforcement of the wage board etc. As far as social security measures are concerned there is the possibility of granting paternity leave to male employees, extension of retirement age up to 65 years, and exploring pension scheme possibilities were suggested going beyond the mandated wage structure revision, he added.

The wage boards for newspaper and news agency employees including journalists, constituted under the working journalists and other newspaper employees (conditions of service) and miscellaneous provisions act 1955, are statutory. The prime responsibility for implementing the recommendations of the wage board rests with the concerned province governments and Union territories of India. “Journalists are paid a lump sum without any welfare benefits and they can be dismissed at will. Except for some newspapers the mainstream publications had, ever since the wage board’s award came out in 2010, conducted only diatribes against the award,” said an editorial of Economic & Political Weekly, a credible publication of India in its 29 March, 2014 issue. It also added, “The burden of opinion pieces by either the owners or top executives (usually in their own publications) was that small newspapers would be forced to close down while the bigger ones would be crippled. While five journalists’ trade unions and federations fought the challenges in court, there was nary a word from journalists or any form of public protest. The entire scenario illustrates well the working conditions of journalists in the country today.”

Even the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a regional non-governmental organization that monitors human rights in Asia and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of the rights, expressed concerns over the salary and working conditions of media persons in India. “In the last few years there has been a major change in the profile of media houses, with an increasing number of high profile business-persons and organizations making an entry. Yet, working conditions for media personnel remain close to the same,” said the AHRC statement issued on 14 April from its headquarters in Hong Kong, adding that the salary of newspaper employees is ‘minimal with no chance of raise no matter how many years one has been on the job’.

Referring to India’s apex court’s decision to uphold the recommendations of Majithia Wage Board for journalists and non-journalists on their pay structure, the AHRC urged media houses to honour and implement the recommendations of the latest wage board as a matter of priority. It also called upon the State governments to ensure a safe working atmosphere for journalists and make provisions for social benefits like health and life insurance for the media employees.

The Assam Tribune group of newspapers based in Guwahati was the first media house in India to implement the recommendations of the latest wage board since January 2012. The 70 years old media house did not wait for the apex court verdict, as done by many big newspaper groups of the country while challenging the constitutionality of the Majithia Wage Board in the Supreme Court. The editor of The Assam Tribune, PG Baruah, also the managing director of the media house that publishes an Assamese daily, an Assamese weekly and an Assamese literary magazine besides the English daily, was candid when he spoke about the wage board implementation, “We have given the employees their due. It is our duty and also the gesture.”

All Assam Media Employees Federation (AAMEF), while addressing the matter of livelihood for media workers in northeast India has urged the newspaper house managements to show their respect to the Supreme Court by implementing the new wage board from this month.

Appreciating the Assam Tribune group for implementing the latest wage board recommendations for the first time in the country, the AAMEF declared, “It is now time for other media groups to show gesture to their employees.” “We have a model media house (Assam Tribune) that has successfully survived for two years with the new wage board facilities to the employees. Now we do not accept any logic that the Majithia recommendations are not implementable. You have to have the minimum commitment to the medium,” said Hiten Mahanta, president of AAMEF. Speaking to Asia Sentinel, Mahanta, also a veteran journalist of Assam, expressed dismay that most media groups in the country have made it a habit to show a loss-making balance sheet every year with an aim to avoid paying proper salaries to the employees. “But except few, it’s a common practice for all the media barons to divert funds from the collected amount of money from the advertisers to other non-media enterprises owned by their families,” he asserted adding that ‘the newspaper owners continue siphoning away the essential resource of the media groups for their selfish interest only to establish the media business as an unprofitable endeavor’.

Meanwhile, Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA) has urged the Union government to facilitate the media persons engaged with the privately-owned satellite news channels with systematic pay hikes like their counterparts in the print media. The Assam-based scribes’ body pointed out that nearly 70 per cent television journalists were still performing their duties with pitiable salaries (read monthly financial package), unlimited working hours and without any facilities recommended by the country’s labour laws. “More over, we demand for a social media audit where the esteemed readers and viewers can find a transparent picture of the financial dealings involved with their favorite newspapers and news channels,” said Rupam Barua, president of JFA, adding that the exercise would ultimately help the media employees including the working journalists in getting their due benefits under the law of the land.

 Nava Thakuria writes from Guwahati, northeast India