Victory for Victoria Hospital Workers in Bengaluru

On 8th May, 2024, 55 workers in Bengaluru who were working as ward attenders in Victoria Hospital (BMCRI) were terminated for the sole reason that they had demanded payment of wages of 2 months, which was due to them. The workers were on a protest from 8th May onwards seeking that they be immediately taken back to work. On 10th May, the workers were detained by the police for having demanded their work, which was their legitimate rights. However, the workers refused to be defeated and continued their protest.

On 14th May, a meeting was held between the Karnataka General Labour Union and the Dean and Director, BMCRI, where it was agreed that all the 55 workers would be reinstated from 15th May. It was also assured that the pending wages of 2 months would be paid. This is a victory to the struggle of workers who have stood strong in their fight for justice. We demand that the wages due to all workers be immediately paid and all workers be assured of fair and dignified working conditions.

These workers have worked 10 to 30 years, but were not treated as permanent workers, and were called contract workers. Contractors have come and gone, but the workers continued. Workers work under deplorable conditions – 2 months wages have not been paid, minimum wages are not paid and workers are forced to work 12 hours without overtime wages. Many of the workers were initially working with Victoria directly in the 90's, even before the contract system came in. They have raised a dispute in regard to their permanent status, which is presently pending.

When these workers were working, Victoria Hospital had 71 ward attenders, who performed various duties including cleaning the wards, attending to the needs of patients, transporting patients, and ensuring hospital supplies. After 51 workers were terminated, there are only 20 ward attenders who attend to the needs of patients and take care of the wards.

Victoria Hospital is the second largest hospital in the country, and was one of the primary hospitals treating patients during the COVID pandemic. These 51 workers, who have now been terminated all worked during the COVID pandemic and are COVID warriors. The work performed by 71 workers, who were already overworked, is now expected to be performed by 20 workers.

The Deputy Labour Commissioner held a conciliation on 9th May and noted the various illegalities done by Victoria Hospital, and advised them to immediately take the workers back to work on 10th May. When workers reported to duty as per his advice, they were not allowed to work, and they were detained by the police for the whole day.

Victoria claims that since these workers are contract workers, they have no obligation towards them. This stance is illegal. The Deputy Labour Commissioner has noted in his advice to them that the workers have been terminated merely for seeking wages for two months, and are now being victimised, which is prohibited under law; that the law is clear that one contract worker cannot be replaced by another contract worker, which is what Victoria Hospital is attempting; and, the case in regard to the permanency and other demands of the worker is pending, and the law prohibits any termination without permission of the conciliation officer, which hasn't been taken. Victoria is a government establishment, and is required to act as a model employer.

55 workers are thrown to the streets due to the illegal actions of the Victoria Hospital. This incident once again raises the issue of contract workers. The Supreme Court has termed contract labour as a form of bonded labour. Across hospitals, both public and private, workers performing D group works, i.e., ward attenders, housekeeping staff, security guards all work under contract workers for decades on end. Many of these works are caste ordained and performed by Dalits and others from marginalised communities and are largely women. They are not paid minimum wages, not paid wages on time and have no job or social security. Any demand for their rights or efforts to unionise is met with termination. The contract labour system thus not only pushes people into debt and poverty but also perpetuates caste hierarchies.

A government hospital as large and essential as Victoria hospital cannot function with just 20 ward attenders. When 71 workers were working, they were themselves overworked. This has a larger impact on the public health system.

This incident again highlights the vulnerability and illegality of the contract labour system which pushes workers, especially women and workers from marginalised communities into precarious working conditions, denying them their basic rights. AICCTU demands that the State Government must take necessary steps to ensure that all contract workers, especially in the government sector are immediately regularised and made permanent workers with dignified working conditions.