Chennai: Nurses Strike Movement ends in Victory

Photo: The Hindu

Taking inspiration from nurse strikes in Kerala, Maharashtra and other parts of the country, nurses from leading private hospitals like Apollo, Fortis and Madras Medical Mission in Chennai went on strike on 2nd March to demand for their basic rights. After a week of uncompromising struggle, the nurses succeeded in winning all their main demands.

Too little to live on

While the profits of the private healthcare industry has witnessed an astronomical increase, the wages of its staff and nurses have remained stagnant over the years. For instance, a nurse with over 3 years of experience gets only Rs. 6500 per month and their real take home salary is even less than Rs. 4500. But the actual wages they should be earning is Rs. 20,000 or more, the salary of their government counterparts (permanent staff).

Many of these nurses have found it very hard to live on such pathetic wage especially in cities like Chennai, were living expenses are too high. Six months prior to strike, nurses from these private hospitals made their demands to the management to increase their salary.

Their demands were:

1. Salary rise from Rs. 6000 to Rs. 12,000 per month
2. Stop confiscation of their educational and experience certificates by the hospital management (which impede them to switch hospitals).
3. Provision of experience certificate at the time of resignation
4. Removal of the bond system

But management didn’t heed to any these demands and continued to neglect them. Again on January of this year, the workers’ representatives pressed for their demands but to no avail. Left with no other option, they decided to go on strike.

Strike on 2nd March

After issuing strike notice to management, around 2000 nurses (majority of them women) from three hospitals namely Apollo, Fortis Malar and Madras Medical Mission went on strike from 2nd March. On 8th March (Women’s Day) nurses from Apollo Welfare Association for Registered Nurses went on a march from Rajaratnam Stadium in Egmore to Langs Garden Road, carrying posters and raising slogans for their demands. While the strike has been supported by unions of various communist parties including CPI and CPI(M), it is really a matter of great shame that these very same Central TU’s have not till date bothered to unionise these extremely important section of the working class.

As situation seemed to slip out of their hands, the management tried to intimate the nurses by threatening them with legal action. Hospitals started recruiting new nurses and put students nurses into service. Even after these measures, nurses did not back off but continued with their stir. As the hospitals couldn’t provide proper service to the patients, management started to worry the impact this was having on their profits and shares in the stock exchanges .

So the management had no choice but to give in to the nurses demands. Because of their unity and stubbornness, nurses won back some of their basic rights. On the day the strike was withdrawn, Apollo hospitals shares went up by 6 %, showing the power these workers can wield which if properly utilized can bring the management on its knees .

Not Health Care Providers but Profit Seekers!

As everyone knows Appolo and Fortis make huge profits from their operation across India. Last year alone Apollo hospital made a profit of Rs. 181 Crores. In case of Fortis, they made profit of Rs. 141 Crores from Rs. 30 Crores in 2010. And where does all these profits go? In Fortis, 81% of the hospital shares is in the hands of just 10 people. The founding family members hold nearly 31 % of shares whereas foreign corporate bodies & investors together hold nearly 50% of Apollo shares. This information is available in the annual reports of both the hospitals .

If one compares the pathetic situation of these nurses & profit being made by these corporate hospitals, one can easily guess that it is these nurses and the other hospital staff who are the real wealth creators. While the hospitals are putting up ads offering world-class service to patients, they are refusing to pay normal liveable wages to its staff. They make huge profit by simply exploiting them.

Marketing Healthcare

Now a days marketing ads try to woo customers with offers & discounts on every special occasion. World Women Day too didn’t escape from this, with discounts being offered for range of products ranging from cosmetics, clothes to health care. Many big private hospitals put ads in leading newspapers about their concern for society, particularly for women. Celebrities attended conference (marketing promos) and released press statement on the importance of women’s health and so on.

Photos of smiling pictures of patients, doctors & nurses along with the logo of the hospital are put up on newspapers, billboards etc. But behind the smiling picture, the naked truth is how profit centric hospitals charge patients heavily, while providing meagre amounts as salary to its lower level doctors, nurses and other staff and how huge profit are going into the pockets of a few.

Day by day, because of wrong policies of centre and state government’s, prices of essentially commodities are spiralling out of control. People are forced to spend more for their health related problems. Most of the people’s savings are being squeezed out by these private hospitals. As government is reluctant to invest in public health care, the poor quality of services on offer at these hospitals are forcing many to go to private hospitals. But these private hospitals are only taking advantage of the situation by literally looting the public. For instance, the normal room charge per day is more than Rs. 5000.

Every year, central governments & state governments are providing more and more tax sops to the health care industries in their budget. No customs duties, excise duties on medical equipment and less tax on life savings drugs. But in reality these sops is not benefiting the ordinary people but the corporate sector.

In 2012-13 Tamil Nadu budget, government allocated Rs. 5,569.28 Crores to the health sector. But the sales revenue of Apollo alone is more than Rs. 2500 crores. One private player is getting revenue equal to half of the budget allocated for health care to whole state population. It indicates how private players are taking advantage from lack of government spending in health care and make huge profits from it.

It is time that the nursing fraternity organises itself to fight for:

* Trade Union rights for all the nurses
* Standardised Wages at-least according to the minimum wages fixed by the Government. Wages to be revised and adjusted to the cost of living, with mandatory yearly increments
* Open the books of the hospital managements to calculate the commensurate wages according to the wind fall of profits they grab.
* 8 hrs. working day, overtime allowances, yearly leave and all other better working conditions.
* Lobby and force the Central Trade Unions to pro-actively intervene in the struggles of the Nurses and other hospital staff and organise them.

The solution to the problem faced by the nurses cannot be brought about by either reforming or regulating the private sector. It is a question on the one hand of complete absence of Universal health care in India versus over abundance of private hospitals in every street corner of Urban India. Only nationalization of these private/corporate hospitals, under the democratic control of the masses, trade unions and health workers, can bring about a long lasting change not only to the living conditions of the nurses but also the vast majority of the Indian people who have been totally denied of basic health care.