Update: Read Part 1 here. Also, the crisis has ended: details here

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Politicians helping “resolve” the conflict

“Call whoever is in charge. It doesn’t take 2 days to get to Pune from Mumbai,” the politician told TinyOwl co-founder Gaurav Choudhary. Choudhary was being held against his will at TinyOwl’s Pune office by employees who were being laid off.

The Pune office had been opened in January this year with 40 employees. Out of this, 15 had been sacked in September. The rest of the staff was made up of marketing and business development employees and delivery personnel. Now the police were there and so were local members of political parties, trying to help “resolve” the dispute.

The police asked Choudhary about the company’s board of directors and Choudhary identified two: Harshvardhan Mandad and Sourabh Goyal. Trying to “help”, one of the political party members said, “don’t pay the employees right away. (Instead) Give them one month’s salary tomorrow, and one post dated cheque for the rest of the amount.”

Accompanying the proposed resolution was a threat. He told the assembled policemen, “We want to register a complaint in his (Choudhary’s) name. We’ll write an application from all the employees. They’re staging an andolan (protest) here. Till then, whatever your procedure is, you go ahead with it. You take him to the police station. Two of us will go with you, but these employees are not going to leave the office premises. Now you can listen to what Choudhary has to say,” he said dismissively.

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Given a chance to speak, Choudhary told the police, “What we’ve decided is, in 6 cities, jitna company ka burn hain, woh current funding se nahi ho sakta (At the company’s current burn rate, we cannot sustain with the current funding). We closed the funding on 23rd, so the board decided to shut down 4 cities. Not Mumbai and Bangalore, those will continue operating. Yes, it is a sudden decision, but the market crashed and the money is very.. so we didn’t have the bandwidth to retain people. According to the company clause, the resignation period varies for different employees, managers and above have a 2 month notice period. In case of sudden resignation or termination, the company’s liable to pay the amount according to the notice period, and according to the clause, we have to pay this by the end of the notice period.”

Read Part 1: Why Gaurav Choudhary was in Pune

Waiting for the money in the bank

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Indian readers would note that this is the middle of the festive season, with Diwali around the corner. The politicians even suggested that the company bear Diwali expenses for its employees, given their lay offs were not good news to begin with.

An employee who had been laid off in September told MediaNama that the company insisted that the layoffs were not performance based. They still haven’t been paid, and were worried that they might not ever get their money: “We’ve been following up on the F&F (Full & Final settlement) for 60 days now. It was okay at that time for us to go home because the office was still here, there was a watchman and other employees. But where will we go when everything is shut here? We can’t all go to Mumbai.”

To this, Choudhary said that the first guarantee was that they’d closed funding, and the second the Post Dated Cheques. The problem: the money isn’t in the bank yet, and the company can’t settle dues for all employees. “There were uncertainties,” he adds, “because that’s what happens in money raising. We’re not a settled company, we’re 1.5 years old,” he said.

Later that evening, one of the employees told MediaNama, “General managers with only 6 months of experience were hired and paid close to Rs 22 lakhs per annum. They would walk out of sales meetings, when the sales team suggested that they burn less money.”

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One of employees had an interesting conspiracy theory, “The motive of the company appeared as if it wanted to hire sales and marketing people to get business and restaurants on board. Once that was accomplished in a particular city, they were kicked off, given that TinyOwl already had a database of hotels and built relationships. Now, it was time for machine automation to takeover and that’s what TinyOwl is doing in Bangalore and Mumbai,” he said. The company had spent Rs 1 crore on marketing in 1 city for a month, across all 6 cities, another said.

The politicians clearly didn’t like the idea of Post Dated Cheques: “What are these people supposed to do if the cheque bounces?,” one asked, “Will the employees sit at the police station on the 30th of November?” “That’s not our intention”, Choudhary said. “Wo sab dikh raha hain. Tumhara intention (we can see your intentions)”, was the response.

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In order to somehow resolve the situation, Choudhary suggested that one of the employee representatives go with him to Mumbai to collect all the Full & Final cheques, a route he thought could bring faster closure. But the politician insisted that the Post Dated Cheques were not the problem, the date (29th November) was. “We want it within 2 days or before this weekend,” he said. Diwali is next week: on the 11th of November.

A sheet with the signatures of all employees present was handed to Choudhary along with the list of their terms and conditions.

According to the calculations done by one of the politicians present, TinyOwl owed employees in Pune money to the tune of Rs 30 lakh.

Read Part 1: Why Gaurav Choudhary was in Pune

Choudhary agrees to stay put

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At around 9:30 PM, the police told Choudhary that he had to stay in the office. Choudhary didn’t have a problem with that, but was concerned about his security: “Employees have been shouting and they’re understandably emotional, but they could beat me up. If things are resolved in a friendly manner, I have no qualms, but I am worried about my security, I didn’t bring any security along with me.” To this, someone replied, “they’re educated people, they’re not going to beat you up.”

Following this, Choudhary proposed that 3 employees stay in the office at night with him, along with two admin employees who had come there with him from the Mumbai office. “None of us will leave before solving the problem,” he promised. On the suggestion from an employee, it was agreed that nobody in the office would discuss anything at night, and that everything should be settled in the morning.

A trip to the police station

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Repeated questions to Choudhary on when the “concerned team” would arrive to Pune got vague answers. The Police had paperwork pending: Choudhary had called the police emergency number 100, and given the situation in the office, they needed a statement from him. A cluster of employees and Choudhary then went to the police station where they took down their personal details, with a rough statement describing the situation, and that the situation would be resolved the next day. These employees then took Choudhary for dinner, and returned to sleep in the office. Back at the office, three watchmen ate their dinner after adjusting the bean bags to make space to sleep. As I was leaving, one of them told me, “The employees of this company are so good. They didn’t touch or take anything that didn’t belong to them (company owned) from the office.”

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This morning, MediaNama was not allowed to speak with Choudhary. Employees present at the office said, “We don’t want the media (here). We don’t want you to report what’s going on or write about our demands. As a journalist, you have to sit with us instead of asking Choudhary questions when we’re not around.”

So we left.

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Editing by Nikhil Pahwa