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AskMe won’t be able to pay employees until Astro buyout happens

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AskMe does not have the money to pay its employees their salaries for July, Manav Sethi, Group CMO & head of digital strategy at AskMe Group, told MediaNama. The company is waiting for money to come in from Malaysian media and telecom company Astro, which, according to AskMe, was supposed to be paid by 31 July. He added that the company had money to pay 200-300 people, but refused to state the exact amount AskMe had left for survival.

In June, AskMe made a management buyout (MBO) proposal to Astro to buy back the stake Astro held in the company. AskeMe’s parent company is Getit Infomedia, which Astro had acquired 50% stake in 2010 for around $20 million.

“No, so we may have but at the end of the day, there is a money that has to come from Astro, that gets apportioned to salaries, payables, any other head.. is completely incumbent upon the business (buyout), but at the end of the day, employees because they’re the ones on the receiving end.. I mean I have to pay their .. components, bonuses, so salary is only one small part of it,” Sethi added.

MediaNama contacted Sethi after unnamed employees at the AskMe Group wrote an open letter to Ananda Krishnan of the Malaysian Astro Holdings company asking him to ‘pay all outstanding dues of AskMe’s employees till end of July 2016’. The letter stated that salaries and dues of more than 4,000 families (not sure if all are employees) are at risk and that the Astro management is liable to pay for them, given that the AskMe Group proposed a management buyout to Astro to buy back its stake from Astro.

MediaNama was unable to find a copy of the official open letter, but multiple individuals have posted this to Facebook (see here and here). If you’re an AskMe employee and would like to share any information about the company, contact us here or anonymously from here.

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As of now, the company has 2,400-2,500 employees, about 500 lower than what it had a year ago. Note that the open letter comes two months after there were between 300 to 650 employees reportedly laid off at AskMe.

What is the company’s stand on the open letter?

Sethi said, “The company’s official status quo remains that we’re in the middle of negotiating the management buyout, the terms of which are being negotiated. This is largely on the basis of Astro’s representation that.. the legal quagmire that they’re in, and they don’t seem to invest any further. So we thought that the exit of the MBO will be easier but they’re making it difficult..” He added that AskMe was in discussions for further funding, “the response of which has been very positive.”

AskMe’s history:

AskMe is a Getit Group company, which was acquired from Network18 in 2013. Astro had acquired 50% stake in Getit Infomedia in 2010, for around $20 million. In June, VCCircle reported that Astro was looking to exit Getit.

In May, Discovery Channel acquired a majority stake in FoodFood, a channel which Astro had launched as a joint venture with Mogae Consultants and Chef Sanjeev Kapoor. Astro had picked up 50% in Mogae in 2009. Note that Astro All Asia Networks Ltd had been chargesheeted by India’s top investigating agency CBI in the Aircel Maxis case, where money laundering has been alleged. More on that here.

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***

Open letter sourced from Inc42:

Open Letter to Mr. Ananda Krishnan
August 1, 2016
To,
Dear Mr. Ananda Krishnan,
Sub: Open Letter to Mr. Ananda Krishna

I am reaching out to you in a desperate attempt to get answers on behalf of more than 4000 families in India that work for the AskMe Group. These families are looking up to you and the Astro Group to be the saving grace by doing nothing but honoring commitments to AskMe’s employees, vendors and other statutory obligations.

As you would be aware, AskMe and Astro had agreed to amicably resolve the present deadlock where the former would initiate an MBO to enable the latter to exit the company. The date for this MBO was agreed upon to be 31st July, 2016 and therefore, Astro is liable to pay all outstanding dues of AskMe Group till end of July, 2016.

It pains me to note that some recent events have really come in the way of this smooth transition that we were hoping for both the companies to execute. I hope my letter to you dated this first day of August, 2016 will draw your attention to our plight.

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The topsy-turvy attitude of Astro has left us stranded. I am with this company long enough to know that all AskMe is seeking are its dues till 31st July, 2016.

If Astro is thinking of not honoring its commitment, may be it can run but the emotional trauma that it will cause to over 4000 families will definitely result in bad ‘karma’. I am sure you are a wise man and would not want to be held responsible for the pain and suffering that will be caused to my family and the many others like me who give their best every day of the month with the hope of getting their salaries credited on time.

Today is the first day of August, 2016. I ask you: Will I get my salary for July, 2016? It is only you who holds the answer for this question now.

I believe that you are a just man and Astro is a responsible company which will look forward to resolve this crisis and honor the outstanding dues till 31st July, 2016. I came to know from the media reports that your foreign directors were recently replaced with “on hire” CA firms in India. What’s going on here?

A sudden decision to replace these directors is I believe illegal and will complicate matters further for Astro, a company which is already facing the heat on account of the 2G scam. This is the same case in which India’s Enforcement Directorate has summoned you in person in November, 2016. We are pretty sure that you will exercise your prudence here and intervene to get us our rightful dues till July 31st 2016. It is not just 1, 2, 10, 100 but more than 4000 families and their dependents that we are talking about here.

I came to know that the following are the three directors who are trying to flee AskMe Board as per developments of last month:

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  1. Khadar Merican – Astro board member and a Bank Chairman in Malaysia
  2. Hisham Mokhtiar – Ex-Khazanah official and COO of Astro
  3. Ashok Rajgopal – Ex EY Consultant

I am aware as per media reports that Ashok Rajgopal also runs a company calls (sic) Astra 21 Lifestyle in Mumbai which is the front and sham company for all Astro dealings in India when Astro was forced to shut their own offices in India in Maharani Bagh under Mr Raghvendra Madhav. Astro was chargesheeted in the CBI in Aircel Maxis case for fraud and cheating and had to exit Indonesia for the same charges. We are also aware that Astro is owned jointly by Usah Tegas, a company 33 percent owned by T Ananda Krishnan and his trusts and Khazanah Nasional, the sovereign wealth fund of Malaysia. It is surprising that such a fund is allowing Astro to commit such immoral and unethical activities.

I seek you for a wise resolution of this issue where all we are asking from your company is to fulfill its obligations.

Hope wisdom prevails!
Best Regards,

***

Related read: The Hindu’s Ananda Krishnan’s Astro to exit RedFM, Sun Direct

Our AskMe coverage.

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Written By

I'm a MediaNama alumna from 2015-16 (remember TinyOwl?) now back to cover e-services like food and grocery delivery, app based transport and policies, platforms and media in India.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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