While journalists are busy exposing the harsh conditions of the world outside, within most newsrooms the employees are being ‘watched’.
A country whose corporate giants disbanded unions once is now witnessing the historic Amazon union vote count in Alabama. As the anchor of Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post said if the 6,000 workers decide to unionise, “It will have a domino effect”. Undoubtedly so, considering the decision to unionise has called for big names, right from the President of United States, Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Hollywood star, Danny Glover and many NFL players. The stakes are high for Amazon and the labour movement in America. Imagine, a country of corporations that have abhorred the idea of unions and their workers being unionised, reducing them to weak links in the decision-making process, today the Alabama warehouse vote count for unionising could prove to be a turning point. In fact, from 1973 to 2016, productivity has grown six times faster, but the same cannot be said of their compensation. According to various accounts of former employees who have worked with Amazon, they have handheld scanners and gadgets that track every movement of the employees, even tracking them into the restroom. Their toilet breaks are monitored.
Now one need not express shock, these are the scenes normally playing out in many a newsroom. While journalists are busy exposing the harsh conditions of the world outside, within most newsrooms the employees are being ‘watched’. CCTV cameras, with managements watching which journalists are friends, eating together or are seen entering or leaving together is just one of the many aspects tracked closely. Some are even cautioned about these ‘observations’. Journalists in India have failed to stand up for themselves though write/speak up against all evils occurring in our society. Now even that is no more accurately reported.
With no union of consequence today, journalists can only bargain through courts, which too are unfortunately serving the interests of the various media managements. If any journalist does stand up and move court, it usually means they are ‘untouchable’, as there is an unwritten code among the media owners that they will not hire such journalists. There may be exceptions but by and large, those who have been unceremoniously sacked or have been denied adequate monetary compensation have only sent legal notices to get their dues and then, have not pursued the matter to the end. In many cases, managements ensure they terminate jobs of journalists not in groups, to avoid legal wrangles. During the pandemic in 2020, many journalists lost their jobs. In fact, the city edition of a leading national newspaper folded up and later, a tabloid shut down. The pandemic was nowhere close to the reason. But then, managements don’t seem to care about giving any reasons. In many cases, editors who have fulfilled the wishes of the management to play the firing squad are retained along with their coterie, while the others are given flimsy excuses and left in the lurch.
One need not go farther than the small screen. Television channels would once give Blackberry cellphones to their staff while tracking the GPS. Slowly, as the reporters learnt to crack into the systems (it was no rocket science, but it took us longer to decipher devious minds), they learnt to switch off these various options and then, the little trade secret of removing the battery from the cellphone, so that the boss did not know one had ‘switched off’.
Tracking is also done through peons, drivers, rival channel/ newspaper ‘khabris’ (there are plenty of informers as they are eyeing jobs to get better pay) and rivals from within the team. A boss is never loved and there will always be a disgruntled sample in every team. Today, the managements have again made it mandatory to hand over one’s social media accounts – Twitter, Instagram and so on to determine one’s promotion and increment with breaking news posts, exclusive posts. But they are also tracking personal views and accounts. Basically, the owner of one Mumbai City newspaper explicitly says, he pays the salary, which means he expects the employee to be at his beck and call; others indicate it.
As for leaves, oh what is that? More like the increments which favoured handful get while others struggle. One is made to feel guilty for taking leave which is mandatory. It is another story that from 30 days most news companies have reduced to 20 or lesser days. Also, one cannot take long duration leave. Sick leave is a hard bargain with even mild fever being suspected as bunking. Most reporters throw everything in life away when something really big has happened, they don’t need to be told. Sadly many editors and bureau chiefs have ended up looking like clerks in this bureaucratic set up as they sit with Excel sheets of the reporting team, with who has taken how many leaves, has remained absent, without looking at medical history or reasons. Yes, there are all types everywhere, some take liberty, but these are not the norm.
This feudal mentality was seen in the zamindars (landlords), who treated workers like slaves. Today’s media barons are no less. The more the owners are ‘managed’ by the ruling political dispensation, the more such cases we are going to see. We can only vicariously share the thrill of the Amazon warehouse workers coming together to vote for a union where they will get more bargaining power.
Worse still, there’s usually no recourse for those who have been treated badly or sacked. In today’s political scenario, where there is a monopoly of media, those who take the legal course have to battle it out for years. Firstly, one needs money and then the time to fight it out and at the same time, one also needs income to run the house and continue to be professional journalists.
Journalists in newsrooms across the world are grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and the repercussions and trying to hold on to their jobs. There have been exceptions, like in the US and Canada. The NewsGuild-CWA, representing thousands of media workers in the US and Canada, drafted a plan unanimously by the labour union’s executive council calling for federal, state, provincial and local governments to provide public funds to sustain newsrooms. This union has given hope to many journalists, who now connect with colleagues from across districts and states. They share notes and updates on decisions. There have been layoffs across newsrooms and NewsGuild unites them in the pandemic. Compare that to the scenario in India, as journalists and technical staff face pay cuts, forced leaves, lay-offs and worse still, newspapers folding up. The news guild in India has little punch, literally. Apart from the dissolution of the Wage Board, the Government of India, during the pandemic passed three labour reform laws. These bills do not address the concerns of those on contracts. The majority of journalists work on contracts and the concern of assured wages is not even included in these bills.
Apart from this, journalists in India have been facing pressure from the current dispensation. Many have been arrested for reporting, be it the CAA-NRC protests, farmers’ protests and Covid-19. During the pandemic, the option of work from home was given out of compulsion. Initially, many news organisations called reporters to the office. Only after public transport was stopped were management’s compelled to relent. A leading media baron tweeted, technology should be developed to measure productivity on computer. Productivity would go up if performance was measured every 15 minutes on the computer and the ‘employee can’t cheat’ and you know how much work has been done in one day by the person, which can’t be measured in real life. The newspapers and channels of this media house will have already written and aired details of the personal tracking of Amazon workers and the horror of them urinating in water bottles, while they indulge in similar, if not worse practices.
Among the corporate practices that was introduced by media organisations was swiping cards and biometrics. Iris scans and fingerprints came in after managements suspected journalists were swiping cards with the help of their colleagues. All measures are based on distrust and suspicion. The owners of one city newspaper insist on reporters returning to the office from wherever they may be reporting. They want to ‘see’ the faces of the journalists. Their priorities are obvious, considering they should be more concerned with the report filed. In fact, even today, many news organisations have not implemented the Vishaka guidelines.