Kerala Nurses’ Strike: Who will heal the wounds

Kerala’s nurses are known all over India and abroad for their compassion and unmatched bedside manners. They are now an angry and distressed lot and have been on an indefinite strike for almost a month, demanding a minimum wage of `20,000, the amount fixed by a Supreme Court appointed panel. Kochi Times probes what made the angels in white take the war path this monsoon, the time of fevers and communicable diseases

It is 1 am in Australia. Meena, a nurse from Thiruvananthapuram, is wide awake while her roommates are fast sleep. She is restless and anxious, thinking about her classmates and ex-colleagues in Kerala. Her memory goes back to 2006, when, soon after finishing her course, she got married to her long-time beau who belonged to another religion. When she got a job in a leading hospital in the State’s capital, she hoped for happier days, as the situation at her home was far from peaceful but that was not to be.
My husband’s family never accepted me because I was a nurse with a salary of just `6,000. They had promised a hike after probation but I never got one in the three and a half years that I worked there. I had to shell out at least `1,500 a month to put my child in a day care. Meanwhile, my husband lost his job and we found it hard to pay the rent and meet the other expenses, she recollects.

Finally, we decided to move out of India, says Meena. After working in Qatar for a year, when I returned to India, there was a change in everyone’s attitude including my husband’s relatives as I had money. Now I am a registered nurse in Australia and I enjoy privileges equivalent to those a gazetted officer gets in Kerala. Of course, it is painful to leave her husband and children behind.

Who wants to leave one’s land? While in Qatar, we used to miss every single thing from Kerala, from the rains to seeing a green leaf. My children will never enjoy anything I had in my childhood. If I had a job with a decent salary, I wouldn’t have come so far.
Her current sense of loss is nothing compared to the everyday struggle of thousands back home, she admits. For long, these ‘angels on earth’ had defied difficulties in the belief that what they were doing is service not profession but they seem to have decided enough is enough and gone on an indefinite strike. That too in the monsoon season when communicable diseases are rampant.

When it suits people, we are bhoomiyile malaghamar and when it doesn’t, they will say, ‘ayye nurso venda venda’, says Anna Mathew from Kannur. Nurses have never been treated with respect here. I scored 1,000th rank in the Kerala medical entrance exam in 2000. I wanted to be a doctor as I was passionate about medical care but there were only 300 seats in Kerala back then. I was a topper in my school and at quiz competitions. Discrimination begins right from the time we join nursing college where we are suppressed and ill-treated. And once you join a hospital as a nurse, the torture reaches the next level, she says.

I began with 2500 rupees as salary and now after a lot of struggle and post the nurses’ strike in 2011, I am getting Rs 11,000 on paper and after all deductions, I take home `8000 per month, she adds. Many nurses are even now scared to raise their voice against the manipulations by private hospital managements. Most of the hospitals pay us `6500 for 12 to 14 hours of work and then deduct 3500 rupees for food and accommodation. Tell me, how can someone survive in today’s world with 2500 rupees a month? asks Anna.

Many of the male nurses, on the other hand, tried to do other side jobs to make ends meet. Shanil Mathai, a senior staff nurse at a private hospital in Kolencherry, takes care of his father’s cattle business too. I took up nursing with passion to serve people only to realise that this job can never give me financial stability. I am not in a position to go abroad as I have to be with my parents. So, I chose a hospital near my home. The cattle business brings more money but I do nursing just for job satisfaction, says the 34-year old with ten years of experience.

His wife Anju Varghese too works in the same hospital for a salary of 8,000 rupees. Even their combined income doesn’t match their expenses. Last month, when my child was admitted with fever in the same hospital with fever, we struggled to pay the bill of `8000, he says.

Shanil reveals that his hospital has hired 40 nurses without pay on Monday promising them ‘still working certificate’ after three months. There are 200 nurses in this hospital working for 6000 rupees (before deduction) in this hospital. As they believe male nurses are the ones who are leading the protests, post the strike in 2011, they have stopped hiring male nurses

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