In June 2021, thousands of Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers went on a strike for 35 days demanding a hike in their monthly honorarium and the status of permanent workers. On July 7, an eight-day long strike by close to 70,000 health workers ended after the Madhya Pradesh (MP) High Court ordered them to resume work from the next day and directed the state government to resolve the issue within two months by constituting a committee of four headed by the Chief Secretary. Among those striking included 40,000 permanent, 20,000 contractual health-workers and 10,000 nurses who had been hired during the Covid-19 pandemic by the National Health mission.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the situation of workers in MP has been grim. Workers from different sectors – healthcare, education, transport, coal, cement – had been suffering even before the pandemic hit. In March 2021, data placed in Lok Sabha showed that the state has been home to the highest number of affected workers and closures in the last three years. It was reported that a total of 3,738 jobs were lost in MP, which constituted 75% of the affected workers.
Commenting on the issue, former General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), MP, Badal Saroj said, “There is no segment of the workers population that has not been affected by the pandemic. A vast majority of the working population in MP has suffered the loss of wages during the lockdown and job losses at a large scale. Self-employed workers such as blacksmiths, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, drivers etc. have still not been able to revive full activity. They were forced to take up other menial jobs that paid less than their previous work. Many of them have shifted from skilled labour to unskilled labour, where the competition was already very high. This has permanently damaged their economy and their sustainability.”
Pramod Pradhan, General Secretary of CITU, MP explained that during the first lockdown, production activities were completely halted except for a few public sector enterprises. He added, “During that entire period, only permanent workers within the public sector received their wages. For example, in BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited), around 3,500 permanent workers received their wages, whereas contract workers lost their jobs. Even after the unlock process started, they did not get their jobs back as the production activity has still not been completely revived. Whether from the organized sector or from the unorganised sector, workers have not received any compensation from the central government or the state government.”
Elaborating on the situation of the workers during the second lockdown in 2021, Pradhan said, “This time, production activities were not halted. But there were no arrangements made to ensure the safety and protection of workers. As a result of this was that even in a modern industry like BHEL, more than 34 permanent employees have succumbed to COVID-19.”
Data collected by the Welfare Board in South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) shows that a total of 145 employees and two contract workers of SECL have succumbed to COVID-19. This data also suggests that around 13 dependants of the employees and workers at SECL have expired after contracting COVID-19. A member of the Welfare Board and president of Koyala Shramik Sangha (CITU), Mahesh Shrivastava clarified that the number of deaths of dependants could be much higher than the data suggests.
SECL is the largest coal producing company in India and is highly profitable. The company has 92 mines spread across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Retaining the top spot among Coal India Limited (CIL) in the financial year 2019-10, SECL contributed 25% of the total coal production of CIL.
Shrivastava said, “67,000 permanent employees at SECL worked throughout the period of lockdown and were given full wages. Around 50% of the contractual workforce remained out of work during this span.” He argued that as a result of the struggle by trade unions, the management announced a compensation of Rs 15 lakh to the family of the workers who had succumbed to COVID and a job opportunity to one dependant of the deceased. “Under the pressure of unions, the management created COVID centres where the workers were treated free of cost. The finances for these centres came from the company’s welfare fund for workers,” he added.
While the permanent workers in the public sector received some relief, contractual workers, workers in the unorganised sector and migrant workers have suffered severely since March 2020. A report by some researchers in association with the Zenith Society for Socio-Legal Empowerment found that 90% of the migrant workers who returned to MP during the lockdown did not receive any kind of monetary assistance from the government. Released in December 2020, the report also found that 56.5% of the migrant labourers in the state continued to remain unemployed several months after returning to the state and 67% of the respondents stated that they did not have sufficient means to run their families.
A number of strikes held by healthcare workers, Anganwadi workers, ASHA and USHA (Urban Social Health Activist) workers, doctors and nurses in MP in the past months is reflective of their plight and exploitation. A T Padmanabhan, Assistant General Secretaries of CITU, MP said, “ASHA workers have contributed immensely to the fight against COVID-19. During the pandemic, while people were advised to stay home and not venture out, it was ASHA workers who were out in slums and villages conducting surveys, collecting data and running awareness campaigns. They played a role in ensuring that people stayed at home during the lockdown, identifying COVID-19 patients and assisting them through their recovery. Even when the officials were reluctant to be on the field, ASHA workers performed these duties throughout the period of the pandemic for a pittance in the name of ‘remuneration’.”
ASHA workers have been paid a meagre sum of Rs 1000 for their special duties during the pandemic in addition to the monthly remuneration of Rs 2000 that they receive regularly.
According to Vidya Khangar, the State President of the Union of Anganwadi workers in MP [Anganwadi Karyakarta Evam Sahaika Ekta Union (CITU)], “In every district, at least two to three Anganwadi workers have succumbed to COVID-19. Only the families of two of the deceased have received compensation. While we were made to work throughout this period – conducting surveys, collecting information, conducting awareness campaigns, taking people from villages to vaccination centres to get vaccinated, we were not even given the basic safety equipment like masks and sanitisers. We have been made to work like bonded labourers.”
The data, reports and narratives coming from workers from different sectors indicate that apart from certain relief available to permanent workers from the public sector, the working population in MP has been hit hard by the pandemic and its after effects. The incessant struggles being waged by workers, particularly health workers, concretely establish this fact. Even in this time of severe economic distress and health crisis, they have received little or no relief from the government.
The writer is an author and a Research Associate with Newsclick. The views are personal. She can be reached on Twitter @ShinzaniJain.