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Draft mass media employees bill: Towards stricter control?

The draft Mass Media Employees (Services Conditions) Bill, placed in parliament on April 1, 2022, is a long-overdue initiative. Its stated objective and scope include relations between media employers and employees as well as dispute resolution, terms of employment including minimum salary, and legal protection of employees including work environment.

The draft contains a series of provisions intended to address some longstanding concerns of media professionals and stakeholders. For instance, the provisions for mandatory issuance of appointment letter, photo ID, and service book, fixation of minimum salary, benefits for in-service death, retirement, retrenchment, termination and dismissal, paid maternity leave, contributory provident fund (CPF), sick leave, rest and recreation leave, medical allowance, employees welfare association (EWA), etc.—all are steps in the right direction. In many cases, however, there is scope for modifications so it can serve the objective better.

On the other hand, there are numerous seemingly discriminatory provisions that need closer scrutiny. The draft provides a minimum of 48 hours of work a week, whereas in other comparable countries, like India, it is no more than 144 hours in any period of four consecutive weeks. The provision for overtime has been made without specifying any limit or the basis of calculation of overtime payment. A Trustee Board of CPF will be formed with an equal number of representatives from employers and employees, whereas governance and management of such funds should be exclusively within the jurisdiction of employees.

The bill provides that a woman-friendly work environment shall be created, but it is left for the rules to be framed to determine how it will be ensured. It does not make any provision to ensure that work conditions, including salaries and benefits, are not discriminatory depending on gender, social, religious, ethnic, disability or any other marker of identity.

The retrenchment provision on the ground of excess staff can be arbitrarily used in the absence of specific criteria determining the credibility of said ground. The provision for dismissal on the ground of physical or mental infirmity based on a registered doctor's certificate can also be misused in the absence of a provision for veracity check. In case of termination of contract, no scope has been made for due process including right of self-defence.

Owners and emh2loyees—"we" vs "they"

A blanket provision has been made that 10 or more employees can be wholesale terminated to maintain "overall security and peace and order", which can be widely and variedly interpreted. This may have a demoralising and intimidating effect on employees and may render the EWA practically dysfunctional.

A key stated objective of the bill is to manage the relationship between "mass media owners" (malik) and employees and redress conflict between the two sides. The term malik represents an outdated and counterproductive "we versus they" approach to the relationship between employers and employees which breeds a mutual threat perception—whereas, corporate good practice features a "spirit of ownership" mainstreamed across an organisation including employees of all levels and employers/investors. The bill can play a catalytic role in this mindset shift, and change the narrative accordingly.

Risk of further government control

The draft represents an underlying agenda for legalising unwarranted governmental and administrative control of the mass media. The government has near-exclusive jurisdiction over the formation and composition of the Wage Board. International good practice shows wage boards composed of an equal number of representatives from employers and employees as well as a few independent individuals, whereas the draft bill provides only one employers' representative, three from employees, and two government officials. Moreover, all appointments including representatives of employers and employees and the unspecified number of additional members are left to the government's discretion.

The question is why the wage board of a private-sector industry like the media should be so much under government control, unless the underlying purpose is to ensure stricter and more targeted control of the media. While the draft obliges employers to pay at wage board rates, it does not make any provision for actions to be taken for non-compliance. This is important against a track record that only about a dozen out of the 150-plus media houses comply, and no action is taken for non-compliance. Unless rigorously enforced, the vast majority of the employees will continue to be deprived, while the non-compliant entities will carry on enjoying undue benefits of non-compliance protected by the inaction of the authorities, and the compliant ones will be further disadvantaged. 

For dispute resolution, an unwarranted idea of government-appointed Mass Media Court and Appeal Court has been invented, which appears to represent a design to further strangulate the media. Even for dispute resolution through bilateral negotiations, an unwarranted provision has been made to "report to the government". These are incompatible with international standards. The most relevant good practice is to repose this responsibility in the wage board like the usual industrial dispute investigation and settlement—provided, of course, that the wage board is truly independent. In exceptional situations, if appeal becomes unavoidable, a Tribunal consisting of a judge of the High Court or above may be provided for.

Work environment and legal protection

Another crucial objective of the bill—to ensure a conducive work environment and legal protection of media professionals—has been left totally untouched. Given that the media is expected to play a watchdog role for democracy and people's right to information, the employers and the government should consider any threat to the working conditions, security and safety of the employees as a threat to themselves. Accordingly, there should be specific provisions for a safe and enabling environment for the employees' professional work, including protection mechanisms and protocols to prevent and address risks such as surveillance, intimidation, attacks, arbitrary arrests, etc.

The bill should provide that media employees, particularly journalists, will have unrestricted access to all sources of information and the right to investigate as needed, and without impediment, as part of their professional duties.

The draft bill needs to be thoroughly overhauled so that it fits its stated purposes. It should be done through a participatory process involving media employees of various categories, employers, editors, media specialists and other stakeholders. The parliamentary committee has the jurisdiction and responsibility to take the lead. The media employers and employees should take their own initiatives proactively. Any failure to do so will be self-defeating.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman is the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).

The Daily Star,

April 10, 2022