Bengal’s Iconic Anandabazar Patrika Group to Sack 40% of Its Staff
The group owns the Bengali daily ‘Anandabazar Patrika’, English newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ and the ABP TV channels.
Even as the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation move has begun to bite Indians hard, the ABP Group, which publishes two of eastern India’s most popular newspapers – the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika and the English newspaper The Telegraph – is all set to retrench jobs of both journalists and non-journalists.
The downsizing of its workforce, by as much as 40 percent, will begin with immediate effect. The information related to this imminent job cut has been conveyed to employees informally.
The ABP Group on Wednesday for the first time unveiled a part of its move after a notice was issued to all journalists covered by the Working Journalists Act and enjoying payscales fixed by the wage board.
The notice informs that the journalists, whose services would no longer be required, would continue to get an amount equivalent to the basic pay at the present rate till the time of his or her retirement would have been due. The notice made it clear that all journalists who are under the wage board will have to accept the company's offer and will have to complete the formalities by 15 January 2017.
Repeated phone calls to the secretary to ABP Group Associate Vice-President (Human Resource) Shiuli Biswas elicited no response. There was no response too to The Quint’s questionnaire emailed to Biswas 30 hours before the story was published.
Though the company has not officially declared the number of employees who would be offered the 'golden handshake', there are indications that the number would be high.
The move comes a few months after Aveek Sarkar, stepped down as editor-in-chief of the group’s two main publications, Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph, leaving his elder brother Arup Sarkar at the helm of affairs as chief editor. Arup Sarkar’s son Atideb was made executive director of ABP Group.
Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph journalists privately say that the retrenchment would hit journalists across the line – those under the wage board, those under the company scale and contract workers. It is learnt that sometime back, ABP Group engaged a US company, Hey Consultancy Ltd, to recommend ways to streamline the group's various newspapers, magazines and news channels, cut down expenditure and losses etc.
After studying the group's workings for around six months, Hey Consultancy recently submitted its recommendations to the ABP management. According to a number of ABP journalists, the information that percolated down to them from the corporate office is that the Hey report observed that the group has at least 47.5 percent surplus workers.
40-50% Employees to be Sacked
The impression that gained currency was that some 40-50 percent employees would be sacked. This was further strengthened as heads of various departments have already been verbally instructed by the ABP management to prepare a list of 50 percent of the employees whose jobs could be dispensed with.
It is not clear how many of them would be asked to go, but a pall of gloom has descended on journalists and non-journalists alike.
One senior journalist said, “It will be difficult to absorb such a large number of media persons in the industry. The problem will be more acute in West Bengal, where both the print and TV journalism are suffering from stagnancy for quite some time.”
From Wage Board to Company Scale
Following the trend set by other media houses, ABP has been systematically bringing the journalists who were enjoying wage board-stipulated payscales to company scales.
Now, more than 90 percent of the senior and middle-rung journalists working there come under the company scale. Besides, a good number of journalists (including all correspondents stationed in various districts) are on contract. Their contract is renewable annually or biennially.
Past Workforce Cut
This is not the first time that ABP Group has initiated such drastic measures to trim down its workforce. In 1997, Anandabazar Patrika, the flagship of the ABP Group, observed its 75th anniversary with much fanfare. Around that time, the group’s employee strength was around 1,800. The company engaged McKinsey & Company to recommend measures to streamline.
McKinsey suggested downsizing the company's work force. While identifying then redundant page designers and some journalists (for example, those working for Sunday magazine). But the company was hesitant about the execution part. The opportunity came when a devastating fire broke out in ABP's office building in September 1999.
About 200 employees were segregated and kept in a separate building without any job assigned to them. Eventually they were offered VRS. The VRS offer was not officially notified to all employees as stipulated by law, but selectively to the segregated employees.
The VRS offer came with stringent conditions. This time around, the indications are that the ABP Group’s downsizing is of a bigger scale. Insiders argue that the company's revenue has gone down substantially, thus forcing it to cut down on expenditure.
Besides retrenchment, the company has decided to bring down the page numbers of Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph. Also, a number of supplements for both newspapers have been suspended.
For the last two years, the ABP Group has been in a bitter spat with the ruling Trinamool Congress and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, resulting in the state government stopping advertisements to the ABP's publications.
(This article has been written by a senior Kolkata-based journalist who chose to remain anonymous. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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