Exclusive | TOI’s WhatsApp firings: Complaint against TOI with Labour Office

Complainant: My fight is my protest, My fight is against injustice

On June 4, the District Labour Officer, Thiruvananthapuram, sent a notice to The Times of India (TOI), to appear before the Labour office in Thiruvanathapuram on June 9, based on a complaint received from Salim Joseph, 49, Special Correspondent with the newspaper in Thiruvananthapuram.

Joseph, had given a “Denial of Employment” complaint to the Labour Commissioner after his access to the TOI office was removed and his official email password was blocked. In his complaint letter, Joseph held that he was denied access to the office without any intimation.

Sources in the Labour office said that Bennett, Coleman & Co, the holding company of The Times of India group, had failed to appear in the District Labour office on June 9 for the hearing on the grounds that their Mumbai office was closed due to the Covid-19 related lockdown. Bennett, Coleman & Co had sent a letter to the Labour office that they were unable to access the files related to the matter. Sources in the Labour office said that a report based on the status of the complaint will be submitted to the Labour Commissioner.

The Kochi Post, after speaking to several employees of The Times of India, has pieced together the events leading up to the complaint sent to the Labour Commissioner. On May 20, several employees were individually called on group-WhatsApp video call (now that seems to be the official channel of communication for TOI firings) while some others were called on group-WhatsApp call (not video), attended by a senior TOI Human Resources manager, the editorial head in Kochi and their immediate boss, and asked to resign. The staffers were told about the imminent closure of TOI’s three editions in Kerala. (If the staffer was in Thiruvananthapuram he/she was told the Thiruvananthapuram edition was being closed down and so on.) Based on the WhatsApp calls the info flowing out was that TOI’s Thriuvananthapuram, Malabar and the Upcountry editions were being closed down and as a result of this 13 journalist staff and several non-journalist staff would have to give in their resignations. The Kochi edition of TOI would be retained was also conveyed to them.

The Times of India, which entered Kerala eight years ago, had aggressively captured the market, keeping the price of the newspaper low to give the rival newspapers a run for their money. But now, unable to withstand the cascading market forces, TOI was quickly shutting down their editions in Kerala. The Kochi Post had reported the closure of TOI editions and the imminent layoffs on May 16.

With a Heavy Heart

On May 21, The Times of India on its front pages in several editions (skipping the Kochi edition for some strange strategic reason) made the announcement “with a heavy heart” that it was shutting down its Malabar and Upcountry editions (circulated in Kollam, Thrissur, Palakkad, Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta) and would rationalise some editions.  Salim Joseph refused to tender his resignation citing The Times of India announcement which had clearly mentioned the Thiruvananthapuram edition would not be closed down. All the journalists who were asked to leave, except Joseph, submitted their resignations.

My fight is my protest, My fight is against injustice

On June 1, TOI cut off Joseph’s access to the office without any official intimation. Joseph, who has over 24-years-experience in the media industry, in his complaint letter mentions that he joined TOI, Thiruvananthapuram in 2015. The letter also says that he was assessed as a “Solid Performer” consecutively for three years. However, Joseph declined to speak on the matter as it was with the Labour Office. He said simply, “My fight is my protest, my fight is against injustice.”

Second Complaint Letter 

The Kochi Post has accessed the letters with the Labour office and in a second letter following the complaint letter, Joseph alleges that after the Labour officer had sent the notice to The Times of India to appear before them, Joseph had received a mail with a backdated termination letter from his employers.

The second letter to the Labour office highlights this:

I received a communication from Human Resources Department of Times of India on June 5, 2020, enclosing a termination letter backdated to June 1, 2020. The company has terminated my services during the pendency of the hearing at Labour Office. I was informed during the hearing held at District Labour Office on June 9, 2020, that the company has requested for adjournment of the hearing citing COVID-19 pandemic and the absence of local company representatives here, which is incorrect.

 WhatsApp Layoffs

Some journalists and non-journalists staff who have been with TOI since its launch in Kerala feel betrayed that after putting in over 8 years of hard work they were treated like enemies and were asked to resign via WhatsApp call. Says one staffer who is serving the notice period, “It was offensive. Calling on WhatsApp indicates that the HR practices of this company are unethical. They don’t want to maintain any records of what they are doing. The treatment of their employees is shabby without any sensitivity and humaneness.”

The rumours that there would be layoffs started circulating in February 2020. Sources in TOI say that many of the managerial decisions were being leaked to the employees and though the termination came abruptly, some say they were aware something was afoot nearly two months before the WhatsApp termination call. One staffer, who did not want to be named, had called TOI’s senior personnel in Mumbai to verify these rumours and was assured that it was all false.

TOI’s entry into Kerala in 2012

When TOI was setting up its office in Kerala in 2011, many of the journalists who joined TOI to be part of the launch team, were working in other organizations and had no intention of working for TOI. One staffer, now laid off, said that it was TOI who had randomly contacted them and asked them to attend the interview. They were offered magnificent salaries which they found hard to turn down. They had worked for the last eight and half years without taking a break to the best of their ability but now they were shown the door during the pandemic without any consideration.

Sources say that the contract of a few of the staffers would have come to an end in July 2020. “So what was the need to compel them to resign in this manner, Firing the staffers during the lockdown when there is no alternative employment available is cruel. Some have taken loans and have families to look after,” said a journalist who withheld permission to publish their name.

On June 10, 3.57 pm, The Kochi Post contacted the TOI HR senior manager, who had made the WhatsApp termination calls to TOI journalists, regarding Joseph’s complaint letter now with the Labour office. The manager did not comment but said the concerned person would get back to The Kochi Post on the matter.

When TOI responds, this article will be updated.

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