“The minimum wages system serves a useful purpose in preventing workers’ exploitation in terms of payment of unduly low wage and helps in reducing inequalities in the standard of living of different social groups of workers,” stated a report, submitted in 2006, on the Working of the Minimum Wage Act, 1948. “The remuneration ……must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfil their family obligations in a worthy manner,” wrote Pope John XXIII in the Encyclical ‘Mater et Magistra’ (Christianity and Social Progress). Both statements, though coming from two distinct authorities, convey the same message. The employers should desist from exploiting employees, and pay a wage that will ensure a minimum standard of living.
The three-week long strike by nurses in private hospitals in Kerala has just been called off. But the issues raised and the questions thrown up by the agitating ‘angels in distress’ deserve a close look.
The private hospitals have long been making the hapless nurses to work for a pittance in violation of laws. They have been thumbing their nose at the Supreme Court order on paying a minimum wage of Rs 20,000. Their argument of financial inability does not cut much ice as one sees booming private sector hospitals in the State. Speciality and super speciality hospitals would not have mushroomed in every nook and corner in Kerala if the existing ones are making even negligible losses.
Hence it is unfair to treat the backbone of health sector with an unjustified wage structure. They deserve better remuneration; better working conditions. It is unprofessional to keep a qualified nurse as trainee for years together with the ulterior motive of keeping their salaries low. Christian hospitals have an added responsibility to implement the laws strictly. If one goes by the dictum ‘charity begins at home’, they should take the lead in dispensing justice to their employees. They should see the lingering pain behind the smiles of most nurses. It is common knowledge that by the time a majority of nurses complete their studies, they are neck deep in debt taken for their studies. In most cases, a major chunk of their salaries goes into repayment of loan. Hence Christian hospitals should not turn a deaf ear to the advice of George Cardinal Alencherry who favoured a better treatment to the nurses.
The State government’s approach to the crisis had been half-hearted, though they have now managed to find an ‘amicable’ settlement to the issue. The directive of a District Magistrate to the nursing students to perform duties of nurses was nothing less that laughable. The private managements keep qualified nurses as trainees for years together on the plea that they require hands-on training. If so, how did the government expect students to perform such duties? Unhealthy practices will adversely affect the health of the health sector. Hope the hospital managements, probably after a rap on their knuckles, will stick to their promises and take care of the caregivers better. It is equally important that small hospitals, which mostly cater to the ordinary mortals, do not go out of business even as the big ones make the most of the new decisions.(Published on 24th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 30)