Bengaluru: Anand* (name changed) is a 35-year-old contract worker at Victoria Hospital, one of the city’s dedicated COVID-19 hospitals. He was among the scores of contract workers who agitated outside the hospital on Monday, demanding fair treatment on par with permanent workers.
Similarly, across the city in NIMHANS, several workers left work briefly to gather outside the hospital, standing two feet apart and spanning the length of the road. They expressed their anger over the fact that even though they risk their health taking care of coronavirus-infected patients, they were denied beds and treatment at the hospital in case of the infection contracted in the course of their work.
Anand underwent quarantine from Monday in a separate building on the hospital premises. This is a bimonthly affair. He works for a week, is quarantined the next week, and gets to go home for three days after his report comes in before he has to start the cycle all over again.
The permanent workers, on the other hand, get to go home every day because they don’t work in roles where they would be in direct contact with the patients. Ostensibly because of their age; they are mostly over 50 years. Contract workers get no such concession, no matter what their age.
At Victoria, Anand’s 150 colleagues work in the wards changing beds, cleaning the floors and toilets, clearing waste in addition to patient care. Six of his colleagues in quarantine tested positive for the disease a week before, two before that, and five the week before that. Now they are being made to isolate themselves in the same premises. The facility hasn’t been cleaned properly, he says, and the hospital management allegedly says they should clean it themselves before they move in.
Throughout hospitals in the city, it’s the contract workers who are overwhelmingly working in the COVID wards, and while the permanent workers are better paid, have benefits like health insurance, and are safe from direct contact.
Contract workers have always struggled for their labour rights, says Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health activist. They are paid less, not promoted, have no benefits or health coverage and no job security. And they have no direct link to the government, as they are hired through middlemen who have too much power that is often caste and class-based. It’s a totally unaccountable hierarchy, she says.
And the added responsibility and risk of COVID-19 care comes with no additional pay, according to Anand, who has been on contract for eight years.
And unlike doctors in some cases, they haven’t been able to leverage importance in the COVID-19 care ecosystem to negotiate for better treatment. “The violation of their rights is even starker now. They are sometimes not given proper kits like masks and gloves, their wages are delayed and they continue to be taken advantage of,” says Dr Karpagam.
“We have to revisit the term ‘frontline workers’. They are not just doctors and nurses, but these contract workers who work directly with the patients, those who clear contaminated wastes from hospitals and also people who work in mortuaries. Their stories are never heard,” she says. They are often from lower castes and remain vulnerable to exploitation.
Yesterday, around six contract workers who were leading a protest in NIMHANS were removed from their jobs and a police notice has been sent to them for violating Section 144. Things work a little differently here because it isn’t a dedicated COVID hospital.
Basavaraj, 48, one of the workers here and a union leader, says that they were protesting for the right to be treated at the hospital and be awarded space in the nearly 50 beds set aside for infected permanent workers and staff. They are all lying empty now, he claims. Meanwhile, three contract workers have tested positive for the virus over the weekend. They can’t be sent home where they will be unable to self-isolate, thereby putting their families at risk. “We don’t even have proper bathing facilities so we can decontaminate ourselves before going home. Don’t we have families?” he asks indignantly.
Dr K Shekar, Registrar at NIMHANS, denies this. They have bought 10 decontamination machines, he says, and the procedures are strictly implemented by the surveillance committee. The contract workers, or swachchatha workers, as he calls them, are all trained in how to wear and discard PPEs if they work in certain sensitive areas. As for the union leaders not being allowed to come to work, he claims that the hospital can’t terminate contract workers and the agencies are simply “circulating” them among other places.
He insists that they don’t treat any positive cases “from outside” here because they don’t have specialists like pulmonologists. They inform the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) about any positive cases they come across who are then taken to hospitals like Victoria, or COVID centres if they are asymptomatic and can’t quarantine at home. However, he did not mention why existing patients who require specialised NIMHANS treatment and who may have contracted coronavirus are housed and treated here.
“We treat contract workers the same as their employees in accordance with government orders, and they come under employee state insurance. The protest was actually about unpaid wages even though the hospital has already cleared all their,” he says, adding that there are vested interests who put on a “show” on Monday.
On the other hand, Basavaraj says that the management has promised to meet their demands and convinced them to call off their protest; but when the union leaders went to meet the registrar they were verbally abused. “Even last night one of the young girls working with us tested positive. She is calling me and crying bitterly. It’s difficult to get beds outside and this hospital won’t accept her, putting her whole family at risk. What would happen to her, she asks. I don’t know what to tell her,” he says.
The author is a freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.