Growth Of Informal And Precarious Work In Journalism: The Indian Scenario

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– Babu P. Remesh, Professor and DEAN, School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), India

During the first few decades since India’s Independence (i.e from 1950s till 1980s), journalists were one of the most protected lot of employees in India. Way back in 1955, a protective legislation, Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act (WJA), was passed, which included many welfare oriented clauses. Protection from retrenchment, stipulation of terms of work and assured compensation during retrenchment and so on were some of the major provisions in this act. The act also stipulated that the journalists needs to be paid a sum of gratuity, when they leave their organisation – after serving for a stipulated period. It is important to note that this was much before the enactment of Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972. Among the many benefits of Working Journalists Act, the most important one is the setting up of Wage Boards, which acted as the statutory wage setting and revising mechanism for journalists. The first wage board was set up in 1956 and since then 5 more wage boards were constituted – the last one being the 6th Wage Board chaired by Justice G.R. Majithia, which submitted its report in 2010.

After the successful implementation of awards of first wage boards, journalism has become one of the highly protected, fairly paid occupations in the service sector – with impressive terms and conditions, which inter alia provided a very conducive environment to journalists for carrying out their work without any fear and prejudice. Job security was the most important feature of journalism in those days.  All the journalists were permanent employees and were popularly known as `wage board employees’, as their terms and conditions of work were as per WJA and wage boards. An overall patronage provided by governments of those times, coupled with a non-interfering approach of the owners of the news-papers in the editorial matters and press freedom added to the independence and empowerment of journalists. Trade unions of journalists also flourished during this conducive environment and the journalists had a visible upper hand in employer-employee relations.  

The above explained good times of formal and protected employment in Journalism did not, however, last for long time.  During the past few decades, in many ways, informal and precarious work flourished in this profession. Many decisive factors cumulatively resulted in a situation of faster informalisation of work in journalism. Prominent among these factors are: growth of contractual work, advent of new media forms, changes in technology of news production, deepening income-inequality, decline of trade unionism and decline of legal protection/wage boards.

From 1980s onwards, there has been continuous growth of contractual jobs in Journalism. By now, considerable proportions of workforce in media firms (print and other forms of media) are working with fixed-term short duration jobs and task-based assignments.  In many of the prominent print media houses, the proportions of temporary/short-duration staff are between 40-50 per cent.  This growth of temporary employees is indicative of the increasing precarity in journalism.  The contract workers are not covered by the labour welfare and protection clauses, stipulated in WJA, 1955. Nor they are beneficiaries of the wage board awards. Thus, the increase in proportion of contract-based journalists led to an emergence of dualistic workforce in the profession, where the majority are without legally backed job security and reasonable terms and conditions at work. The intensity of precarity is more in the case of stringers, who are the most vulnerable category of workers. Stringers often offer their work on call and as per requirement of the media houses. They do not normally figure in the pay rolls of the firms for which they are working. These workers essentially do freelancing and commissioned work, on a very short term basis for a payment. As they are not formally employed with assured terms and conditions, they often face deep insecurities such as inadequate wages and irregular, delayed payments (and at times even non-payment for their work). This forces many of them to engage in supplementary income earning activities (including gathering of advertisements for the news papers – to get a small proportion of the advertisement-income as commission for their service). There are also cases where stringers use their media-connections to raise extra money by resorting extortion and blackmailing, which is also an indirect outcome of the absence of job security and assured payment in the media sector.

In the past few decades, the massive advent of new media forms and the advent of new technologies together altered the landscape of journalism considerably, making the journalists more vulnerable in the labour market. During the past, print media (news papers) was the sole sector of journalism. But, with the entry of television channels and other media forms (e.g. websites, e-newspapers and on-line journalism), the worlds of journalists have undergone drastic transformations.  The resultant challenges include: obsolescence of traditional journalism skills (and redundancy of journalists), the need for acquiring new skills and competencies and the need for multi-skilling and multi-tasking. The conventional methods of producing news have got discarded with the march of new technologies, and in order to retain their jobs the media workers often have to work for multiple media forms simultaneously. In such situations, one can see the same journalist preparing reports and feeding inputs for multiple media forms (e.g. newspaper, TV channel and online news paper) – all as part of his/her assigned work.  Such multi-tasking along with the continuous run for breaking news (to improve the TRP of the channel or readership of the newspapers) resulted in a situation where the journalists are in a continuous rat race – to establish their utility to the employers and to retain their jobs for some more time.

In this age of technological revolution in news production, the quantum of paid work for journalists are shrinking given the fact that technology provides inexpensive and even zero-cost substitutions for many work process of traditional journalism. Also, in this new era of social media and mass-participation in news generation (using mobile phones, internet, whatsapp, instagram and so on), a considerable chunk of news are produced and circulated freely. So, for paid journalism there is an oversupply of journalists, which gets more intensified with the regular influx of many more trained journalists every year, from hundreds of journalism training institutions in the country. In recent times, downsizing of workforce has become a priority in media firms. Accordingly, closure of editions/news bureaus and massive retrenchment of journalists have become a frequent feature of the present-day Journalism. 

Widening income inequality within the occupation of journalism is another matter to worry about. Unlike earlier times, the gap between salaries of editors and media professionals at higher level and those of the reporters and journalists at lower rungs has increased considerably.  Due to this, there is a striking polarisation within the journalists, where the `elite’ personnel in the profession do not relate themselves to the ordinary journalists, who are struggling for attaining/retaining some basic minimum labour standards and fair salaries.

The most decisive factors of growing informalisation and precarious work in journalism are the decline of trade unions and the weakening of labour protection in the sector. Over the years, the collective strength of journalists has declined considerably, due to multiple reasons including withdrawal of overall patronage and supportive environment provided by the state and hostile approach of the media firms towards trade unions. Alongside this, the efficacy and coverage of WJA, 1955 has also deteriorated considerably.  There has been a visible decline in the number of journalists covered under wage boards. Many of the erstwhile wage-board journalists moved to other media forms (e.g. Television and On-line Journalism), which are not covered by WJA, 1955. Alongside this, most of the new recruits are either engaged in fixed-term short duration appointments or are excluded from the wage-board benefits. Though the last wage board (Majithia Board) gave its award in 2010 and it was subsequently approved by the Government, the powerful media houses and their collectives in India strongly resisted its implementation. Subsequently, the matter was drawn into a protracted litigation process, which ended with a verdict the Supreme Court of India in 2014, favouring the journalists. Notwithstanding this, the implementation of Majithia Wage Board’s recommendations is not fully implemented in most of the print-media firms in India. Due to drastically declined strength of potential beneficiaries, there is a growing apprehension that there may not be any requirement of yet another wage board for journalists. Given the above scenario of growing job insecurities and vulnerabilities of journalists, it is very imperative to plan immediate corrective measures to address the decent-work deficits in this occupation.


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