Saturday, November 24, 2012

Striking Nightingales, Milking Hospitals

 Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Hospitals are the last place one would want to visit. Even so, hospitals are crowded with people. Whether it’s a five star corporate hospital or a dreadful government hospital, the crowd has quite a bit in common. They are tense, grim and regretful. I’ve never met a happy person at any hospital.
Since my childhood, I have hated hospitals. The smell of Dettol, that pungent smell made me uneasy the minute I’d step in. I’m not sure I would have loved hospitals if they smelt of Eau de Cologne, but I have never had the chance to visit one that smelt that way.
Even as hospitals tend to be irritatingly intimidating and reek of pungency, there are some people who make hospitals a somewhat comfortable and friendly place. A smiling nurse clad in white can ease half your tension. They care for you more than some family members and are always at your beck and call when you are admitted ill.
Their soothing words and helping hands always have a better impact than the antibiotics you gulp down as part of the treatment. But have you ever asked a nurse if she had lunch or dinner or a comfortable sleep the previous day? Maybe we are not expected to ask such personal questions as per hospital protocol.
We tend to forget the caring nurses once we are out of the hospital and always complain about the huge bills we have paid for treatment. We demand clarifications on the bills. Some hospitals charge more for cotton balls than they do for food.
But nurses remain in the hospitals attending to their duties for a monthly salary of around Rs 2000 or less. Some hospital managements even enforce 14-hour work schedules on them and pay less than a sweeper employed in the same hospital draws every month. Even in the trade-union-active Kerala, nurses had no unions until recently. They had no labour rights and only duties.
Nurses in Kerala’s hospitals are bound to their duties forever. Since they don’t have the protection of an organised union, their voice is silenced by the powerful hospital managements. Even the governments headed by the pro-poor CPI (M) never looked into the state of affairs of nurses in private hospitals. The poor nurses bore the brunt of their noble profession in silence.
Nurses in Mumbai were the first to go on strike in the country. Soon the strike spread across the country like a viral fever and finally rattled Kerala – a state that contributes almost 40 per cent of the high skilled nurses in the country.
It’s a fact that Kerala’s hospitals were like prisons for the nurses. A recent investigation found many hospitals in the state flouting labour laws. Labour Minister Shibu Baby John has admitted that too.
“During an inspection in 362 private hospitals in the state, only 23 were found to be paying minimum wages to its employees. In 339 hospitals, minimum wages are paid partially. It’s shocking,” said the minister, a former trade union leader. The minister had more shocks in store as the investigation found that 6340 employees, out of the 40,718 in the 362 hospitals, didn’t figure in the muster rolls. But the government never acted against the private hospitals for violating the existing laws of the state. Instead, it directed hospital managements to approach the court and get a verdict in their favour so as to ban the nurses’ strike in the state.
For politicians, nurses do not constitute a mega vote bank as the majority belong to poor families. Hospital managements are very powerful both financially and communally. Many hospitals belong to Christian, Hindu or Muslim managements. Even the corporate hospitals are run by prominent doctors honoured with Padmashrees or those aspiring for national laurels.
And so, the pleas of striking nurses were ignored. Now nurses are on strike everywhere under the banner of the United Nurses Association (UNA). The strike at the Mother’s Hospital in Thrissur has completed 73 days and around 15,000 nurses in Thrissur district are on strike in support. The nurses have picketed hospitals, clashed with police and staged protest rallies.
“Our strike is not for comforts, but for minimum wages. The hospitals in Kerala are making huge profits and making assets worth crores year after year but they are not ready to pay minimum wages to hospital staff. When we demand better wages, the police register false cases against the nurses and arrest them at the behest of the management. Such oppressive tactics will not kill our spirit,” said Jasmine Shah, state President of UNA.
The striking nurses had shown that they could organise themselves better even without the support of major political parties. They have been doing it for the past one year and have proved that collective protest can change their destiny. The organised protests may provide nurses with a better pay and working environment but a better pay won’t instil the noble values of the profession.
The nurses’ strike is slowly taking a violent turn as the strike has polluted hospital environs. Certainly, nurses are not responsible for this change. It’s the responsibility of the government to provide minimum wages to all. In its way of dealing with the nurses’ strike, the Kerala government has also failed in its basic duty to deliver justice.
The fighting nightingales will certainly have trouble milking the hospitals.

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