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Indian Nurses' Strike in Kerala nears 200 days as Hospital management refuses to budge

26 February 2018
More than 100 nurses have been been on a strike since 21 August for better working conditions at the K Velayudhan Memorial (KVM) Hospital, in the southern State of Kerala, India under the banner of the United Nurses Association (UNA).

Despite the resolve of the union and the several conciliation meetings held by the state government, the KVM Hospital management has refused to respond to the demands of the workers. The UNA says that more than 100 nurses have been unfairly dismissed and remain without salary from KVM management since six months.

Working conditions at KVM Hospital

Working hours are nearly double the statutory requirement at 350 hours per month (instead of 190 to 208 hours). Instead of a system based on 3 shifts of 8 hours, the hospital uses a 10 hour day and 14 hour night shift. Further, nurses are often asked to perform shifts of up to 20 hours to respond to the lack of appointments by the KVM management.

Despite the 2013 revision of wages in the state of Kerala to INR 11,500 base salary per month, the actual payment received by nurses at KVM ranges from INR 6,000 to 9,000. This is too low for the nurses to sustain their families as well as repay the loans that many of them take to pay for their education. In addition, management sometimes uses the trainee system to deploy new recruits on full fledged duty without a salary at all.

Nurses face lack of job security at the KVM hospital where trainee system is used even after several years of work to justify wages below the statutory minimum and denying statutory Employees' State Insurance (ESI) for their health needs and the retirement scheme Employee's Provident Fund (EPF). The 97 nurses on permanent contract are receiving PF and ESI only since 2017 after UNA intervened. It has also been reported that nurses often get fined for taking their statutory leave.

UNA struggle

In June and July 2017, UNA took out a State wide struggle for the implementation of the Supreme Court order to bring the salary of nurses working in private facilities at par with that of nurses working in government facilities. Not surprisingly, the nurses from KVM joined the strike in large numbers. The strike was called off on 21 July following a decision by the state government to revise the state minimum wage for nurses in the private sector accordingly. Post the strike, the union demanded that the working conditions be changed as per the law. Not only did the KVM management refuse, it did not renew the tenure of two 'trainee' nurses who were leading part of the strike. As a result, the nurses of the KVM Hospital re-started their agitation and, faced with apathy from the management, they began an indefinite strike from 21 August 2017.

The government was quick to call a conciliatory meeting 3 days later, but the KVM management did not even bother to attend. Despite that the nurses have kept the emergency and casualty departments functioning. By mid October the KVM management citing financial reasons decides to resort to a lock out by closing down the hospital. Doctors are retained with full salary, while the rest of the employees are terminated. It is estimated that management paid around INR 6,000,000 to 40 doctors in November.

Yet, the workers remained organised and continued the agitation. In the first week of January 2018, KVM Hospital reopened by appointing 40 new nurses despite that the High Court of Kerala had ordered that new staff could not be appointed as long as the ongoing dispute is not resolved..

In the last month, UNA has intensified its support to the struggle of the KVM unit. On 29 January simultaneous marches were held in several districts across Kerala demanding an end to the trainee system, reinstatement of the 112 dismissed nurses of KVM and the implementation of the wage revisions. After the talks convened by the Kerala State Labour Minister T. P. Ramakrishnan failed on 8 February, UNA State Secretary Sujanapal Achuthan started an indefinite hunger strike in front of KVM Hospital. A few days later, striking nurses picket the National Highway on a Sunday and on 12 February nurses observe 'black day' across Kerala and across 13 States in support of the KVM nurses.

In an impressive show of strength, on 15 February 2018, 50,000 nurses from across Kerala gathered at National Highway 66 at Cherthala, stopping traffic for 8 hours, until the District Collector T V Anupama met them. The Collector submitted a report to the state government demanding urgent intervention in the matter. If the issue is not resolved, an all Kerala indefinite strike will be called on 5 March 2018.

Demands and way forward

The demands of UNA at KVM are that

The management of KVM Hospital should:

  • Reinstate the 112 nurses unfairly dismissed without justification and without termination notice for exercising their right to assemble and engage in collective action;
  • Implement a three-shift system and respect the statutory 190 to 208 hours of work per month;
  • End the trainee system and pay all nurses deployed in the Hospital at par in respect of the principle of equal pay for equal work;
  • Implementation of 2013 wage revisions now and 2018 wage revisions when finalised;
  • Provide the statutory ESI and PF benefits to all workers;
  • Stop wage theft of any kind, including fines for taking legitimate leave.

The Government of Kerala should:

  • Facilitate conciliation between UNA and KVM Hospital management ensuring that both parties engage in good faith, or take the necessary measure against any party that has no intention to find a fair solution to the conflict.

Meanwhile, UNA will hold its First National Convention in Delhi on 25 February with delegates from more than 15 states. While the UNA convention will be an important space for solidarity with the KVM struggle, a much broader alliance with other social movements and unions across the country is needed to ensure that nurses in all parts of India are treated with dignity and respect and enjoy decent pay and working conditions.

PSI is committed to give its full support to the admirable struggle of the KVM nurses.

Check out the Facebook Page of the Untied Nurses Association here.

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