After months of underpayment, harassment, and lack of protection from COVID-19, nearly 6 lakh Accredited Social Health Activists(ASHAs) are going on strike for two days starting Friday, August 7.
The army of women health workers, who are tasked with tracing high-risk contacts of COVID-19 patients across slums and hard to reach rural parts of the country, have been demanding better and timely pay, and a legal status that ensures minimum wages to sustain amid the pandemic.
Created under the National Rural Health Mission in 2005, the ASHAs' primary job is to be a community level care provider, which includes facilitating access to health care services, building awareness about health care entitlements especially amongst the poor and marginalized, promoting healthy behaviours and mobilising for collective action for better health outcomes. However, following the pandemic, the government has roped them in for the battle against the deadly virus.
"For working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. we get only 2,000 rupees a month and no masks or sanitizer. We have to maintain so many documents for a measly sum which is also never on time. The government has no place for us in its heart," Sulochana Rajendra Sabde, a 45-year-old ASHA in the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra told Bloomberg.
Sabde is yet to be paid the extra Rs 2,000 per month which the state government had promised for virus-related work.
For the two-day strike, the ASHA workers will also be joined by other scheme workers such as Anganwadi workers and those under the National Health Mission.
"The scheme workers many of them are frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19 are forced to take this step after four months of the outbreak of the pandemic and the lock down as none of the minimum requirements for them, safety, insurance and risk allowance, are being provided by the government," the central trade unions said in a statement.
"Even their monthly wages are not paid for months together despite many of the workers have died due to Corona during this period," the unions added. The unions include INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF, UTUC.
As many as 20 ASHAs have died to the COVID-19 outbreak, including Saira Anwar Sheikh, an ASHA in Maharashtra, who was given masks and gloves but no protective wear, who died of the deadly virus on June 1.
"She was the literate one among the two of us. She gave 11 years of her life to this work and there's been no help from the government," said Anwar Sheikh Ahmad, who has been unable to claim the insurance the centre promised for frontline COVID-19 workers, despite visiting the local agencies multiple times.
"They are going to lower-caste households. They are reaching out to women. They are not going to the middle class or the Bollywood elite. The challenge is to bring attention to what is lost when these people go off the field," said T. Sundararaman, the New Delhi-based global coordinator of the People's Health Movement.
Besides delayed wages and lack of protective gear, the ASHAs also face harassment in their communities due to the stigma associated with COVID-19.
Sabde said that she had to call the police after a man turned violent upon asking for his travel history. When she goes searching for people with a cold or fever, "People scream at me, curse me and pressure me not to give all the details," she said.
The trade unions are demanding safety gear for all frontline workers, especially those working in the containment areas and red zones. Furthermore, they are also seeking frequent, random and free COVID-19 tests of all the frontline workers.
Besides this, the unions are also demanding a Rs 50 lakh insurance cover to all frontline workers, covering all deaths on duty, along with pension or jobs for the dependants of the workers. Along with this, they are also demanding coverage of treatment of COVID-19 for the entire family of the workers.
Furthermore, the unions are demanding a minimum compensation of Rs 10 lakh for those who get infected with COVID-19 while on duty. Besides this, Additional COVID Risk Allowance of Rs 10,000 per month should be provided for all the contract and scheme workers engaged in COVID-19 duty, the unions demanded.
"ASHAs are honorary volunteers and not considered workers under minimum wage law, even though they implement all the public health schemes," said Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress.
The unions are hence pressing for the inclusion of the scheme workers in the category of workers, to give free ration or food for all the needy and Rs 7,500 per month for all non-tax paying families for six months, besides ensuring jobs and income for all.
Furthermore, the unions are also demanding implementation of the recommendations of 45th and 46th ILC (labour conference) for regularization of scheme workers as workers and minimum wages of Rs 21,000 per month and pension Rs 10,000 per month.
Besides this, the unions are demanding proper implementation of the existing insurance schemes Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana and Anganwadi Karyakarti Bima Yojana, and also asking the governments to provide ESI (employees state insurance) and EPF (employees provident fund) benefits to all scheme workers.
Meanwhile, Vikas Sheel, joint secretary in the health ministry, said that the union health ministry has been disbursing funds for ASHAs, including additional COVID-19 pay. However, there may be issues at the local level, he added.
"If they withdraw, then even routine services including immunization and tuberculosis control will be seriously affected. They are trying to draw attention to the overall pressures they are under. It is not the two-day strike, it is the denial of their basic terms of services," said Sundararaman.
The ASHAs are hopeful that their strike will improve their current circumstances. Jeet Kaur, an ASHA in Ludhiana, Punjab, said, "Our husbands have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic, so we can't afford to lose ours too. How else will we feed ourselves and our children?"Also Read: Punjab: 17-Year-Old Girl Leads Tractor March Against Farm Ordinances In Bathinda