Home >Companies >Start-ups >Legal startups see spike in enquiries as laid-off employees seek options

NEW DELHI : Noida-based HR professional Deepa T has had a tough four months. In February, the company she worked for stopped paying her salary. In March, once the lockdown was announced, her employer sent her a single-line email, saying her employment had been terminated.

“I am the sole breadwinner for my family, and needed to figure out my options. I decided to get legal advice since I was treated unfairly," she says. Hiring a lawyer would be expensive so Deepa decided to try LegalKart’s online counseling service to understand the first steps. She hadn’t been paid dues or received any documentation from the company.

LegalKart, an app that connects lawyers and prospective clients, launched its online helpline 45 days ago, and has received over 800 calls asking for guidance on next steps after termination or non-payment of salaries. “During the lockdown, we saw a spike in unpaid salary and termination cases. Most cases came from Bengaluru, where there was about a 9X increase. All the callers were from the startup industry," says Arvind Singhatiya, founder and CEO of LegalKart. “Calls from Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai followed, where we saw a spike of terminations from the startup and real estate categories. In pre-covid times, job loss queries were just 0.9% of total queries. In May, it has risen to 5.7%," he says.

Most of the people who reach out via the online service have no option of hiring a lawyer right away—some can’t afford a full service law firm, others have no idea what they can do but just want to know if they can sue the employer.

For Deepa, the counseling led her to send a legal notice to her former employer and recover part of her dues. She is still out of a job and hasn’t yet decided whether to pursue the matter in court as that will cost money she doesn’t have.

Mumbai-based independent lawyer Sachin Pandey says most people are not aware of their rights as employees. Every week of the lockdown, Pandey has received three-four calls from employees who have lost jobs. “Most of the calls have been from people who have just joined or were serving probation. Companies can terminate services of such people easily as per the contract. But if you have been confirmed and the company forces you to resign, there is legal action you can take," he says.

Delhi-based Manoj Kumar also reached out for legal help after a UP-based JCB dealer fired him from a managerial post within a few months and without an explanation or settlement of dues. For Kumar, it’s not just the money but also the fact that this hampers his chances in the job market. “If I go for an interview, what do I tell the prospective employer? The company has to give me a reason and a settlement letter. And till then, they should pay me what’s owed to me," says Kumar, 45.

While some are approaching lawyers for advice, most do not pursue the matter further in court, largely because of the fear of being black-listed in the job market. Advocate Sanjoy Ghose says no employer would admit it, but “going to court will in most probability held against you in future job prospects. If you have litigated against a former employee, employers will be scared."

If an employee seeks legal protection, he or she needs to prove that the service termination is a breach of the employment contract. Most people are unable to do so. Bengaluru-based legal practitioner Ayantika Mandal too has observed a surge calls and complaints about termination without reason, unpaid dues, or offer letters not being honoured. These enquiries have gone up from once a fortnight to one a day during the lockdown but often there’s little people can do beyond demanding the final settlement. She says people should always ask for legal help if there are parts of a contract they do not understand before they sign it. “They can pay a little to lawyers or get friends who understand legal terminology to check it," she says.

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