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Kerala nurses take on powerful private hospital industry

16 August 2017
Health worker in India prepares to vaccinate baby
On 20 July 2017, nurses from the southern Indian State of Kerala achieved an inspiring victory resulting in a substantial increase in wages. This was after a month long struggle, during which they stood resolute against all efforts by the private hospitals industry to break their will.

On 19 June, nurses organised under the banner of the United Nurses Association (UNA) and Indian Nurses association (INA), commenced mass action to demand the implementation of the Supreme Court’s directive setting wages in private hospitals at par with those in public hospitals. About 150,000 nurses work in private hospitals in Kerala.

Based on this legal framework, basic wages were increased from approximately €150 (INR 11,000) to about €270 (INR 20,000).

The nurses’ action started from UNA’s stronghold in Thrissur with a “go-slow” strike, and many hospitals had to operate at minimum levels. As most staffers joined a march to the District Collectorate (administrative headquarters), a team of senior nurses covered for emergency situations in the affected hospitals. The casualty departments maintained staffing at the barest minimum. No new admissions were allowed and outpatient cases were not taken.

While nurses are entitled to at least INR 11,000 as basic wage, their net salary is much less after hospital management has make compulsory deductions for food and accommodation. According to reports, net wages range from INR 7,000 to INR 8,000 and most nurses earn below INR 20,000 even after 10 years of service.

Under pressure from the action, on 27 June, the Government of Kerala (GoK) convened an Industrial Relations Committee meeting with UNA, INA and the management of private sector hospitals, represented by the Kerala Private Hospitals Association (KPHA). However, no resolution was reached. But UNA continued to pile pressure on the GoK to bring the talks to a positive resolution for the workers, or enact a private sector nurses’ minimum wage in the State, based on the directives of the Supreme Court.

UNA sent a strike notice to 322 hospitals with more than 50 beds across the State of Kerala. While the strike was held off by an injunction in the High Court, the nurses organised mass actions such as marches, sit-ins and relay hunger strikes. On 20 July, the GoK finally accepted the demands. A meeting of representatives of nurses’ associations and hospital management with the Chief Minister, Mr Pinarayi Vijayan, decided to hike the minimum pay of nurses working in hospitals with a bed strength of up to 50 to INR 20,000.

The government is to appoint a committee to decide on the salary of nurses working in hospitals where the number of beds is less than 50, as well as an increase in the stipend of trainee nurses. The committee will be asked to submit its report within a month.

Jasminsha, the President of UNA said, “This is a historical victory. It shows that when they are united, workers can push governments to intervene in favour of the working classes and force capital to bow to our demands. UNA will continue its struggle to ensure that this legal achievement translates into a reality for every nurse in Kerala.”

PSI US affiliate AFT sent a letter to the Chief Minister of Kerala, urging a negotiation solution with the union.

by Susana Barria, PSI project coordinator, South Asia

This article is an extract from the “Right to Health” newsletter issue 03/2017. Subscribe to the newsletter. Send us your stories.

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