Months and months of unpaid salaries, unending unpaid leave, unpaid termination benefits, and penalising of unions -- this is what the pandemic has left the news industry in Bangladesh with.
A look within the fourth estate reveals that those tasked with speaking up against violations have become victims of gross labour rights violations themselves.
When a major newspaper with connections with the ruling party terminated 36 employees on March 15, 2021, it led to a messy series of events.
The ones terminated claimed that they were all members of a newspaper trade union and that they were penalised for unionising.
“We formed the union two years ago to pressure the establishment to pay salary arrears. At the time of termination we were demanding increments -- there had been no increments for eight years,” claimed Bivash Barai, a terminated journalist who was the head of the union in the newspaper. “We were also demanding that those not on the wage board be regularised and brought under the board. We gave a letter to the establishment on March 4, 2021 stating our demands.”
Thirty-six of them got termination letters 11 days later. The letters said they were no longer needed. On April 11, they organised a protest in front of the newspaper office.
“When we reached the office gates, we found them closed. There were policemen in front of the gates. Inside the gates, there sat strangers with rods and sticks. We had no idea who they were, we had never seen them before,” said Bivash Barai.
Violence broke out. “As we were refused to entry, some journalists threw stones at the gates. The armed strangers retaliated; they attacked us with rods,” said Shaju Ahmed, a former subeditor at the newspaper. He was hit on the head several times. As blood flooded his eyes, the 47-year-old slipped into a haze.
“I am a heart patient, so I could not run. They kept saying ‘I will break your hips so that you cannot do journalism’,” said Shaju.
“I fell to the ground and lay there. They beat me all over. My left leg had had a surgery -- that was affected more. I still cannot walk properly. I have headaches all the time,” said Shaju, who had worked at the newspaper for seven years.
At another prominent newspaper owned by a leading industrial group, senior employees were sent on unpaid “leave” on June 10 last year. The leave has still not ended.
“Twenty-nine of us got the letters on June 10,” said a former senior reporter of the newspaper requesting anonymity. Almost an equal number were sent on unpaid leave in the next few months. Exasperated that the newspaper was neither terminating him lawfully, nor asking him to come back to work, he recently handed in his resignation letter, thereby forfeiting the termination benefits he was entitled to.
“They did not terminate us, so I only received my provident fund, but not the service benefit,” said Naushad Jamil, a 37-year-old culture reporter who had worked at the organisation for 11 years. “This is a violation of the labour law.”
At a slightly smaller newspaper owned by a social service organisation, journalists have not been getting paid for months at a time. “I was terminated in April 2020. Those of us who were part of the union were terminated first --six of us first, then six more people. I was the unit chief of the Dhaka Union of Journalists at the newspaper,” said Motlu Mallik, who was a chief reporter.
“When we left in April, they had fallen behind on salaries by two months which went on for a further three months. They cleared the dues of five months, and then stopped paying again for eight months,” he said. Currently the employees are not getting a single taka, he said.
The sacked journalists have had to agitate to get their rightful service benefits, he said. “We held human chains [three times] in front of the newspaper office and the social service foundation last year,” said Mallik. Only six of the 19 terminated journalists have received their service benefits, said the journalist.
Journalists working outside the capital city Dhaka have fared far worse.
Al-Mamun Jibon, a reporter from Thakurgaon, was served a double blow when he was sued under Digital Security Act and his salary stopped at the same time.
He used to work for a relatively smaller newsroom, and on March 26, he received a letter saying his honorarium would be stopped. “It said that if I still wished to contribute news, I was welcome to, but that I would not be paid anymore,” said Jibon.
Then, on April 15, he was hit with a DSA case for putting up a social media post about how the mismanagement of the administration had led to a surge in Covid-19 cases. “Since then I was on the run, for fear of arrest, until I got bail on September 2,” said Jibon.
Another 34-year-old reporter from Sunamganj, who requested anonymity, spoke of a large newspaper recruiting him in December 2019, but giving him his appointment letter only in March this year.
“I have worked with them since December 2019. I sent them three or four news stories every day, plus three or four special stories every month. In addition I brought them ads worth Tk 70,000. I got the contract letter only last month, and hopefully will start getting a salary soon,” he said.
A group of media researchers from Drik, led by Dr Saydia Gulrukh, interviewed 100 journalists between October 2020 and January 2021 and found several labour law violations across the board.
“Journalists have been found to have been terminated with no notice period at all at newsrooms of all sizes,” says the report, a draft of which was shared with this correspondent. While retrenchment is legally allowed, the worker must be given a month’s notice.
“Terminated journalists are facing a lot of difficulty extracting the gratuity and provident fund which are rightfully owed to them,” said the report. It noted that employers made journalists work without contracts for long.
All the journalists The Daily Star spoke with had one thing in common: a sense of despair and hopelessness about the future.
“Will this report change anything?” asked Jamil. The answer to that question, unfortunately, is not known.
Zyma Islam is a reporter at The Daily Star, Bangladesh