HT explainer: Why do PGI contractual workers strike work repeatedly? - Hindustan Times
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HT explainer: Why do PGI contractual workers strike work repeatedly?

Apr 06, 2024 09:46 AM IST

At PGIMER, contractual workers, comprising sanitary attendants, hospital attendants, kitchen staff and security guards, constitute a whopping 80% of the total work force, while regular employees form only 20%

Every six months, the contract workers at Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) go up in arms, demanding resolution to their long-standing grievances. But why do they protest? Hindustan Times correspondent Robert Abraham delves into the heart of the matter, uncovering the issues that fuel these periodic strikes.

As per the records available with the establishment, PGIMER started outsourcing some non-core hospital services in 1996. (HT Photo)
As per the records available with the establishment, PGIMER started outsourcing some non-core hospital services in 1996. (HT Photo)

Why did PGIMER engage contractual employees?

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As per the records available with the establishment, PGIMER started outsourcing some non-core hospital services in 1996. This was done in sync with the policy of Government of India at the time to encourage public-private partnership.

What is there a stark difference in number of contractual and regular employees?

At PGIMER, contractual workers, comprising sanitary attendants, hospital attendants, kitchen staff and security guards, constitute a whopping 80% of the total work force, while regular employees form only 20%. For example, there are 349 regular hospital attendants and 969 through contractors, totaling 1,318. Similarly, there are 354 regular sanitary attendants and 1,054 on contract, totalling 1,449. Other contract workers include around 200 in the kitchen, 250 lift operators, 700 security personnel, 150 gardeners, 450 clerks, 30-40 receptionists, 80 stenographers and around 70 laundry staff. Overall, 3,776 workers are on contract. Yet, shortage of staff continues, with many positions lying vacant, especially in nursing and technical roles. There hasn’t been a staff review in three decades, making it difficult to determine the actual staff requirements based on workload.

How dependent is the institute on these employees?

The institute heavily relies on these contract employees to fulfil various essential roles, ranging from sanitation and patient care to administrative tasks and security. These contract workers play a crucial role in maintaining the day-to-day operations of the institute, ensuring that essential services are provided to patients and staff members. Without their contribution, the institute would struggle to function efficiently, as seen in the past two days when contract workers went on strike, leading to disruptions in patient care and overall operations. There are no norms for any ratio of regular versus outsourced employees. The same is determined on need basis.

Why are the contractual employees on protest path?

The contractual workers have some key demands, including regularisation, implementation of equal work, equal pay, medical facilities for workers not covered under ESI Scheme, grant of bonus to contractual staff drawing wages more than 21,000 and round-the-clock canteen facility for them. Currently, their biggest demand is equal work, equal pay as per an agreement with PGIMER administration on January 20, 2024. The contractual workers’ Joint Action Committee contends that the hospital administration is not implementing similar wages despite an order by the Punjab and Haryana high court. Yet, whenever contractual workers issue a strike notice, the administration approaches the court for a stay on strike, citing importance of hospital and critical care services.

Why is PGIMER not able to resolve the issues being flagged by these employees?

PGIMER officials maintain that the issue of similar wages is awaiting court resolution. However, the workers’ union argue that the court’s judgment is already in their favour and the current case concerns compliance of the court order. Despite promises and agreements, the PGIMER administration allegedly reneged on its commitment to provide increased wages from February 7, 2024. PGIMER officials though highlight that several other demands have already been addressed, such as the introduction of a 24x7 canteen service. Additionally, they clarify that employees earning less than 21,000 cannot receive bonuses according to regulations.

Who is Ashwani Munjal? Why did HC issue restraint order against him?

Ashwani Kumar Munjal, a former PGIMER employee who retired in October 2022, now chairs the Joint Action Committee, comprising four unions representing contractual workers. PGIMER approached the high court against him, accusing him of inciting workers and disrupting hospital operations. In response, the court directed Munjal not to enter the institute’s premises until further notice, aiming to prevent potential disruptions due to strikes.

Why do workers allege bias?

Employees express their frustration, highlighting that doctors have dedicated boards and committees to address their concerns promptly, whereas they lack similar platforms. They emphasise that their grievances often go unheard, compelling them to approach the courts for resolution.

Given the patient load, the importance of the institute for the region and changing norms on workforce engagement, what is the road ahead for the institute?

The PGIMER contract workers’ union members say the institute must prioritise finding a balance between meeting patient demands and addressing the needs of its workforce. It should also make sure there are enough staff members who can stay for long term. In general, due to ever-increasing load of patients as well as advancement of services, it is felt that workforce needs to be adequately staffed for satisfaction of all stakeholders.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Robert Abraham is a staff correspondent with the Hindustan Times in Chandigarh. He keeps readers updated on the latest developments in the world of health.

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