Meagre salary, no benefits: Contract workers in TN’s Health Department struggle

Contract workers in Tamil Nadu’s Health Department, who have been deployed to COVID-19 related duties, demand revised salary, travel expenses and regularisation from the government.
A medical professional in a PPE suit testing samples in a lab
A medical professional in a PPE suit testing samples in a lab
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Till a week ago, pharmacist Vasantha Kumar (31) had to endure a 120 km ride from his home in Pollachi to reach the COVID-19 care centre in Coimbatore every day for duty. But unable to bear the travel expenses over time, Kumar recently took up accommodation at a college hostel in Coimbatore to carry out his COVID-19 duties while saving every penny possible.

Like Kumar, there are 805 pharmacists working on contract with Tamil Nadu’s Health and Family Welfare Department with a meagre salary of Rs 10,000 per month since 2015. These pharmacists were temporarily hired under the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK) scheme for early detection and intervention of disabilities and diseases in children in government schools. However, after schools were closed due to the pandemic, these pharmacists have been working as COVID-19 warriors.

Speaking to TNM, Kumar said, “I was first deployed at a checkpost in Coimbatore, for which I had to travel over 40 km from home on my bike. As I had to bear the travel expenses, I had very little of my income left to spend for my family’s needs.”

While traveling 40 km and bearing the travel expenses was a hardship in itself, it came as a shock to Kumar when he was deployed at the COVID-19 care centre two weeks ago.

“As this is the only source of income for my family, I can’t afford to quit my job. So I decided to make the 120 km trip daily. But just the fuel cost me more than Rs 3,000 per month. With the remaining income, it was hard to make ends meet,” laments Kumar.

When TNM checked with other RBSK pharmacists across the state, we found that they are employed in COVID-19 care centres, fever camps, checkposts, hospitals and other COVID-19 related facilities alongside other healthcare professionals. They are required to perform swab tests, take oximeter readings and temperature checks – putting them in close contact with positive patients.

Remarking on how RBSK workers have become invisible COVID-19 warriors, Kamal Abdul Naser, another contract-based pharmacist on duty at a COVID-19 care centre in Coimbatore, said, “Despite working under the state’s Health Department, the government is yet to consider us frontline workers.”

“The officials claim that we don’t come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients as we’re not employed in COVID-19 wards, but given the tasks we perform we do have a high chance of contracting the virus,” he explained.

“Besides this, contract workers are not given offs like nurses and doctors after working for a few consecutive days. The government should look into these issues as it’s a matter of life and death,” Naser added.

Death compensation

According to reports, so far two RBSK workers have succumbed to COVID-19 in Tamil Nadu – Sivaraman of Kallakurichi district and Shabila of Thiruvallur district. But the contract pharmacists say that they have no way to confirm if the family of the deceased workers can avail the COVID-19 death compensation and Rs 15,000 announced for healthcare workers by Chief Minister MK Stalin last month.

“All the benefits and death compensation can be availed by regular staff, but not workers on contract. We want the government to regularise our employment, provide COVID-19 aid and revise our salaries as a matter of priority,” said Naser.

When asked about the demands made by the contractors, J Radhakrishnan, Tamil Nadu Principal Health Secretary, said, “All kinds of workers from 108 drivers, nurses and doctors including contract workers working on COVID-19 related activities will be given monetary aid and death compensation by the state government. If RBSK or any other contract workers have been left out, they will also be added to the list of beneficiaries.”

“In case of travel expenses, if the outsourced workers on COVID-19 duty place their demands we will look into it,” the Health Secretary added.

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