Lucknow: Medical services in state capital's Lucknow, including emergency services, ground to a halt on Thursday, after scores of ambulance drivers and related health workers in the state went on an indefinite hunger strike after their demands were not met.
The '102' and '108' emergency ambulance drivers, Advance Lab Support (ALS) and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) staff on the frontlines of COVID-19 fight in Uttar Pradesh,began an indefinite strike in front of 108 head office, near Aashiyana Power House, Lucknow.
Under the banner of Jeevandayani Ambulance Service, the drives have been protesting against pay cuts and delay in salary disbursement. The drivers, who have been employed by Hyderabad-based public-private partnership firm, GVK EMRI, are demanding full wages for all the 19,221 workers across the state who have not been fully paid over the past nine months.
Hanuman Pandey, an ambulance driver based in Lucknow and president of the Ambulance Workers’ Association, said despite working for a sector that is responsible for saving lives, the government has refused to consider them to be ‘government employees’.
"Those being paid monthly salary of Rs 17,000 have been receiving Rs 9,000 since October 2019. The newcomers who are supposed to get Rs 5,500 are being paid Rs 3,500. Besides, the salary is being handed over on the 25th of every month instead of between the 7th and the 10th. Meanwhile, the workload has continued to increase," Pandey told NewsClick adding that the while the government asks for online bill, the contractor provides them only manual bills.
"The '102', '108' ambulance drivers, EMT employees come under the ‘skilled’ category, whose pay scale of Rs 7,085 is fixed by the government under the Minimum Wages Act 1948. However, the company is paying a monthly basic salary of Rs 6,500. Along with this dearness allowance (DA) of around Rs Rs 3,542 should be given, but neither our fixed basic allowances are being paid," Pandey said.
Most of the ambulance drivers, who have been driving 24X7 and have been away from their families since the outbreak of COVID-19. As per estimates, there are about 4,500 such ambulances running in the state, engaging some 17,000 drivers.
“We put our duty ahead of our families and it is humiliating that we are not getting our basic salary. The state government made us realise that we are contractual workers and cannot get perks like those in government jobs, no matter if we have been called 'corona warriors'. We are driving ambulances round the clock with coronavirus patients, we can at least be provided our full salary and proper safety gears," said the president of the Ambulance Workers’ Association.
He claimed that ambulance drivers in UP have been operating since the past three months without full payment.
Sharad Yadav,Uttar Pradesh media in-charge of Jeevandayani Ambulance Service, who is observing a hunger strike, said: "Over 17 health workers, including an ambulance driver, was found positive after carrying COVID-19 positive patients. Many of us have not visited our families for months and are surviving on food from roadside eateries or those distributed by local organisations. Yet, we have not been receiving our basic salary. Sometimes they credit Rs 8,000 and sometimes Rs 10,000. This has been happening for the past nine months," said Yadav, adding that if their demands were not met within 48 hours, they would organise a state-wide hunger strike.
When asked why they had not been getting full salary despite working on the forefront, Yadav alleged foul play by some senior officers of GVK EMRI who were sending “offline bills to the government to make money. Even the government has sent notices to them asking them not to prepare manual bills.”
"We have not even received our salary for May. When we threatened to hold a demonstration, they released half salary, that too to only to 40%employees,” Mahendra Singh Tomar, another employee, told NewsClick.
It may be mentioned that in April, '102' and '108' emergency ambulance drivers had halted work and demonstrated against the administration for not providing them safety equipment, health insurance worth Rs 50 lakh and food during their duty hours.
When asked whether they were now getting all these, Tomar said: "Only plain masks are being provided to the ambulance drivers despite the fact that we are carrying COVID-19 positive patients regularly."
Incidentally, hearing a PIL on alleged non-payment of salary to health workers during the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court had recently said that not paying salary on time or deducting salary was a legal offence.