Kerala nurses' protest against paltry pay draws huge support from diaspora

Kerala is witnessing a "jasmine revolution" thanks to its nursing diaspora spread across the world, whose remittances also help the consumerist state's economy to stay afloat. On Tuesday, the state capital will see some 50,000 "angels in white" marching on its seat of power demanding a decent pay.

The sisters abroad are sponsoring their transport and accommodation, besides providing emotional support to take on the state's powerful health care industry. Organisers say a few of them have also arrived to participate in the rally, demanding a minimum pay of Rs 20,000, while the traditional trade unions controlled by politicians keep away.

The nurses say they're overwhelmed by the support pouring in from abroad. Kerala has lakhs of registered nurses, and nearly half of them are working abroad, besides other Indian cities. They extend their support on social media.

Nurses sitting on a protest. Twitter/ @shakeerali231

Nurses sitting on a protest. Twitter/ @shakeerali231

"The other day, I got a call from a nurse in Botswana, expressing solidarity," said Jasminsha M, president of the United Nurses Association (UNA). UNA has called the rally in Thiruvananthapuram. "She told me 100 Kerala nurses are working in the southern African country, and they are all keenly following us online. I have received similar calls from many countries since we started the agitation last month."

UNA claims a membership base of 379,000 and nearly 18,000 of them are abroad. The members from 18 countries regularly keep themselves updated through Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype. The nurses draw support mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Austria, Kuwait, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa and the United States. Some of the nurses staying abroad call television channels to show their support.

"Even Rs 20,000 is not enough to meet ends. Do you think they can survive on that in Kerala when the prices are skyrocketing?" asked Dhanya, a nurse who joined a debate on News18 Kerala from Riyadh via the telephone.

"We all are keenly awaiting the outcome of the strike," she added.

The UNA volunteers are staging a sit-in before the State Secretariat after last month's talks with the government failed. Another independent union, Indian Nurses Association (INA), is on an indefinite hunger strike there.

While the nurses get a paltry sum of Rs 6,500 when they join as a trainee, which could continue for years on end, their compatriots on the same job in the Gulf and Europe draw anywhere between Rs 100,000 to Rs 400,000.

Even the corporate tertiary care hospitals receiving a lot of medical value tourists from the oil-rich countries have rejected their demand for minimum wages fixed by a Supreme Court-appointed panel last year.

"Many of the nurses who stay abroad offer us donations, which I usually discourage," Jasminsha, whose wife is a nurse in Qatar, told Firstpost. "I will be addressing their meeting in Melbourne on Saturday through Skype. They expect some 500 nurses to gather there."

UNA has also called a token strike at 322 hospitals having more than 50 beds on Tuesday. When they begin their march at 11 am, the nurses in Delhi will stage a demonstration in the national capital.

Their leaders say the government is not keen on ending the strike as it marks "the beginning of the end" of the trade union monopoly of the ruling Communists.

"Labour minister has called us for talks Monday evening. If they agree to our demand and fix the minimum salary accordingly, our protests would turn into victory marches," said Bipin Paul, UNA's treasurer.

"We are a bit skeptical about it as pro-government unions are not interested in a settlement. They fear the emergence of independent labour unions," he told Firstpost.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) has decided to revise their salaries at some 320 hospitals under them, out of the state's 921 private hospitals, and has formed an 11-member panel for the purpose.

Father Thomas Vaikathuparambil, the secretary of KCBC Labour Commission who is also the director of Kochi-based Lissie Hospital, said in any case, a new salary structure would come into force in their hospitals on 1 August.

His hospital has revised its salary structure for nurses twice since the government last fixed the minimum wage in 2013. Now, a graduate nurse draws Rs 18,000 and a qualified general nurse (CGN) Rs 17,000 at the entry level.

"We will wait for the outcome of the meeting with the minister on Monday. If it fails to arrive at a consensus, we'll finalise a salary structure on our own for not only the nurses but the entire hospital staff," he told Firstpost.

"Our nurses are known for their dedication and services. The church had played a crucial role in it, and we are committed to providing them with a decent pay. We have asked the hospitals not to spend on charity without paying them properly."

The UNA and INA welcomed the decision, cautioning that they are not ready for a compromise on the minimum wages they demanded.

"We are striking work in Kannur district for the past nine days, and our relay hunger strike has entered the 11th day. If talks fail, we would abandon work statewide and stall the sector," INA president Libin Thomas told Firstpost.

"Two of our leaders, who sat on a hunger strike before the Secretariat, have been shifted to a hospital. Another one started fasting on Friday."

With the state's fabled health indicators under serious threat because of the collapse of garbage management in cities and towns leading to a fever epidemic that has already claimed more than 200 lives, an indefinite strike could hit it hard.

The nurses say in private sector a GNA, or equivalent to an assistant nurse, gets an average Rs 8,750 a month and a nursing graduate gets Rs 9,250 whereas the government nurses get Rs 32,000 and 34,000 at the entry point. However, they don't demand parity.

The UNA has emerged as a force leading many successful strikes since its inception six years back, and it also got the previous Congress-led government to sign a pact fixing the salary structure in 2013.

The state government’s Minimum Wages Advisory Board early last year set their entry level salary at hospitals above 50 beds in the range of Rs 18,000 and Rs 23,000, but no one paid any heed.

Later in September, on the recommendation of the Supreme Court panel, the Union government issued an order to the state health secretaries to fix the minimum pay at Rs 20,000.

The UNA wants the hospitals to follow them into bringing parity in salaries paid to government nurses and those working in private hospitals with more than 200 beds.

The crisis has deepened since the Union government banned private agencies from recruiting nurses following the mysterious release of dozens of nurses in the captivity of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq's Mosul province two years back and the surfacing of a recruitment scam fleecing aspirants.

Six state human resource corporations in India, most of them notoriously incompetent, have now been authorised to recruit them for hospitals and have given instructions on the government's eMigrate portal.

"The hospitals in the Gulf are now increasingly turning to other easily accessible places, like the Philippines," says Vaikathuparambil.

The migration from Kerala has come down sharply from an average of 30,000 earlier. The authorised Kerala state agencies – Norka-ROOTS and Overseas Development and Employment Promotion Consultants (ODEPC) – have together recruited only some 2,500 nurses.

While the private recruiters used to charge up to Rs 2.5 million earlier, the government has brought down the fee to around Rs 20,0000 after the scam. Others manage a visiting visa to Dubai to attend an interview there and get a job, though at an exorbitant cost.

According to 2014 estimates by the Centre for Development Studies, as compared to 100 nurses and nursing assistants in Kerala, there are 85 working outside India.

An estimated 38 percent of Kerala’s nurses work in the US, followed by the United Kingdom (30) Australia (15) and the Gulf (12).

Earlier the nurses were ready to work even without pay as they only wanted an experience certificate to migrate to greener pastures.

However, now they find it difficult to repay their education loan from the paltry amount they get, and the Indian Nurses' Parents' Association says 28 nurses committed suicide after receiving recovery threats from lenders.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2017 12:53 PM

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