Any success in stemming the tide of COVID-19 rests on the shoulders of not just the government and a robust healthcare system, but also on the police, waste management workers, the paramedics, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), and others. Discontent, however, is brewing among the rank and file of frontline workers. Over the last week alone, ASHA workers, pourakarmikas, medical students, link workers, and contract doctors have expressed their unhappiness with the provisions made for them by the government. A look at who is protesting, and what their demands are.

‘A long-standing demand’

For over two months, ASHA workers have been surveying communities, spending hours in containment zones and sometimes even facing the brunt of public anger. However, since July 10, over 40,000 workers, who have played a vital role in the battle against COVID-19, have been boycotting work.

They are asking for a fixed monthly honorarium of ₹12,000 and adequate personal protection equipment (PPE). In January, even before the pandemic reached India’s shores, ASHAs had launched a massive protest in Bengaluru. “We receive an honorarium of ₹4,000 from the State and ₹2,000 from the Central government. We lead a hand-to-mouth existence,” D. Nagalakshmi, State secretary of the Karnataka Rajya Samyuktha Asha Karyakarteyara Sangha, said.

They have also asked for PPE kits. “We are not trying to arm-twist the government in the midst of the pandemic. Ours is a long-standing demand. We all have been working day and night, but we have still not got justice,” Ms. Nagalakshmi added.

Medical students: Parity in stipends

Final year MBBS students in private colleges, who have been roped in to assist in COVID Care Centres (CCC) and fever clinics, claim that they have been asked to make their own arrangements for accommodation and pay for their treatment if they contract the virus. Students claim they are not given adequate safety kits even when they are posted at fever clinics and quarantine facility centres.

“I am getting paid a stipend of ₹5,000 or less per month, despite working for over 10 hours a day risking lives. Students in government colleges get over ₹30,000,” said a medical student. Others claimed they were receiving no stipend.

At the time when students aired their grievances, Medical Education Minister K. Sudhakar said if colleges did not pay interns a stipend, the State would write to the Medical Council of India to initiate action against managements.

Link workers: Overworked and understaffed

Link workers at the BBMP have been tasked with multiple COVID-19 duties. “Our day begins at 8 a.m. as we follow autorickshaws that collect waste from households. After 10.30 a.m., we are assigned COVID-19-related duties,” said B.K. Shashikala, president of the BBMP Health Link Workers’ Association, affiliated to the AITUC.

Seeking action: A file photo of BBMP link workers during a demonstration in Bengaluru.  
| Photo Credit:
Sudhakara Jain

Last week, link workers staged a protest at the BBMP head office demanding immediate disbursal of pending salary and protective gear. “Link workers were roped in for survey purposes around 25 years ago. There were once 8,000 link workers; only around 290 now remain,” Ms. Shashikala said and added that the workers still were not recognised by the civic body. Link workers get ₹6,459 a month.

Pourakarmikas: Give us PPE kits, insurance cover

The government has often referred to pourakarmikas as ‘Corona Warriors’. But this acknowledgement of their services has not translated into any real gains, said pourakarmikas, who staged a 30-minute protest last week at mustering centres.

The nearly 18,000-strong pourakarmika workforce wants protective gear, regular medical check-ups, and insurance coverage.

Nirmala M. from the BBMP Pourakarmikara Sangha said since the lockdown, the pourakarmikas have been given masks, gloves, and sanitisers just once, twice in some areas. Many have not been made aware of the risks involved, especially since used masks and gloves are routinely being discarded indiscriminately.

They are also asking for medical check-ups and coverage under the ₹50 lakh insurance scheme as well as for vulnerable pourakarmikas be identified and given paid leave.

Contract doctors want services regularised

As many as 507 contract doctors in Karnataka have been working in various PHCs in rural areas. Amid the pandemic, their role in healthcare is particularly important in rural areas. For years, they heve been demanding regularisation of their services. On July 8, they arrived in Bengaluru, threatening to resign if their demands were not immediately met.

Demands: Contract doctors contend that while they have been working on a par with permanent doctors, their salaries are lesser. The government has now issued a notification calling for the appointment of 2,000 doctors, which provides a window to regularise them.

They did not go ahead with their threat after Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister J.C. Madhuswamy announced that weightage of marks would be considered during the selection process. He said that 2.5 marks for six months’ service and maximum marks of up to 30 would be given for each doctor.

Boycott threat

Demanding enhanced salary and matching grants to their fixed honorarium from the State government, as many as 1,802 contract employees at the Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society (KSAPS) have threatened to boycott work from July 20.

“Although we have been working for over 18 years, our salaries have continued to remain in the range of ₹13,000 to ₹16,200. Moreover, the government has deputed only contract workers under the National Health Mission and the KSAPS for COVID-19 duty while sparing permanent workers. We have not been provided adequate PPEs, masks, and gloves. Most of us work in the Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres (ICTC) and are at risk of contracting infection while handling patients. If our demands are not met, we will boycott work from July 20,” said Fayaz Ahmed, president of the KSAPS Contract Workers’ Association.

(With inputs from Afshan Yasmeen, Chitra Ramani, and Jayasimha K.R.)

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