On Monday, four bouncers visited the premises of the New Delhi-based news channel HTN Tiranga TV, where employees were staging a silent sit-in over indiscriminate layoffs. Over 200 employees of the news channel, owned jointly by senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal and his wife Pramila, were laid off without notice, and with just one month’s basic pay. The bouncers were sent in after the employees refused to leave the office premises until Kapil Sibal, who is reportedly in London, speaks to them and gives them more clarity on the lay-offs.
“It is really unfortunate that they sent bouncers. We asked them if they were trying to intimidate us. Then there was a dialogue, and the bouncers, who just came and sat there, left,” an employee, who did not wish to be named, told TNM.
Later on Tuesday night, the channel's management made a fresh offer to the protesting employees. Sources tell TNM that the management offered 50 days severance pay, in addition to the basic pay of one month salary, in response to the employees’ demand for three months’ severance pay. The source told TNM that current employees have accepted the company’s offer, but there is no clarity on whether the offer will be extended to the employees who were fired in the first few rounds of layoffs.
On Wednesday morning, journalist Barkha Dutt, who worked as a consulting editor with Tiranga TV, tweeted she will be moving court and initiating criminal and civil proceedings against Kapil Sibal and his wife Pramila for cheating, fraud and refusal to honour contracts.
‘Employees cannot be sacked’
According to an employee, Sibal had himself given a verbal assurance that the company will function for a minimum period of two years. However, the grounds of these terminations that were given by Pramila Sibal was that the investors who had promised funds have backed out.
An employee of Tiranga TV shared with TNM a copy of his contract.
“At the end of the probation period, if your overall performance is found satisfactory, your appointment will be confirmed in writing. In case for any reason confirmation cannot be given the probation period may be extended ONLY ONCE for a maximum of further 3 months only. Till such time as you are not confirmed in writing you shall continue to be on probation. Upon confirmation, either party will be entitled to terminate the contract of employment by giving One month notice or basic pay in lieu of notice (sic),” the contract states.
However, MJ Pandey, the General Secretary of the BrihanMumbai Union of Journalists, told TNM that such termination of services en-masse from Tiranga TV is illegal. Clause number 20 of the contract specifically states that the employees’ services can be terminated, without any notice or salary, only if there is “misconduct in the case of reasonable suspicion of misconduct, disloyalty, commission of any act involving moral turpitude, any act of indiscipline or inefficiency as compared to other employees or lower performance as compared to other employees of your category.”
“The management has no right to terminate unless on grounds of misconduct or inefficiency. On no other grounds can the employees be sacked. So they cannot have these mass terminations anyway. Everyone cannot be inefficient. Nobody should accept this contract. It can be challenged in court stating that it is a violation of the clause mentioned above,” MJ Pandey explained.
‘An unreasonable contract’
According to advocate Sanjay Singhvi, such contracts have been held unconscionable in the past and can be challenged.
“Such contracts are not binding and they are what is called unconscionable contracts and this has been held by the Supreme Court. They are pro forma contracts and they will not be held binding in my view. They are entitled to get whatever the terminal dues are, even if they are for more than three months. They can challenge in court,” Singhvi said. He quoted the case of Ganguly vs Central Indian Waterworks, where the judgement states: “The mode of making "effective provision for securing the right to work" cannot be by giving employment to a person and then without any reason throwing him out of employment. The action of an instrumentality or agency of the State...therefore, not only be violative of Article 14 (right to equality) but would also be contrary to the Directive Principles of State Policy contained in clause (a) of Article 39 and in Article 41.”
Clause (a) of Article 39 states: “The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing (a) that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means to livelihood.” Article 41 guarantees the right to work, to education and to public assistance in certain cases.
‘It began in June’
“It all began in June, when the management released the first list of employees that were to be laid off. At the time, 20 employees were named, including me,” Sushil Kotian, an employee at Tiranga TV who has been fired, told TNM. Sushil had taken to Twitter on July 2 to state that he and some others were being fired without any clarity. Sushil was hired in June 2018 and the channel went on air on January 26, 2019.
We the employees of @NewsHtn (Tiranga TV) are being fired with just 1 month salary and without any clarity. We would want to meet with @KapilSibal as no one from management has addressed us. @INCIndia @RahulGandhi @PrakashJavdekar @IndEditorsGuild @ShekharGupta @BJP4India— Sushil Immanuel Kotian (@kotiansushil) July 2, 2019
“At the time, people thought only 20 would be laid off. They said they will be giving us one-month severance pay. The 20 of us were trying to do something, we were planning to file a case and then Barkha Dutt had said that you have to stand up for yourself... But when the second list and the other subsequent lists came, more and more people started getting listed people began to protest,” he added.
“There were many people who were freshers, just out of college and this is their first job. They were hired in April-end, they had offers from different companies, they chose Tiranga TV over their other offers and now they are being laid off,” Sushil added.
Meanwhile, employees who have been fired are now frantically looking for jobs. Late on Tuesday night, the management made a fresh offer to the employees. Sources tell TNM that the management offered 50 days severance pay in addition to the basic pay of one-month salary in response to the employees’ demand for a total three-month severance pay. The source told TNM that some of the employees have accepted the company’s offer while others are mulling action against the company.