Rajeesh remembers the night of May 22, 2018 very well. He had just finished an interview at the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital and had been asked to begin work right away on an emergency basis. He knew he had to, as he had just signed up for a high-risk job - to work as cleaning staff in the Nipah Virus isolation ward of the hospital.
At the time Rajeesh joined, two positive cases for the Nipah Virus were being treated inside the ward. Several permanent staff refused to turn up to work, let alone set foot inside the ward and there was an acute dearth of nurses, nursing assistants and cleaning staff during those two months, he recalls.
“There are tons of applicants who usually come for interviews. That night it was just 12 of us who volunteered to work inside the ward. Five of us are were asked to join immediately. We were told that the contract would be for an indefinite period - until the epidemic was contained,” he says.
For the next 39 days, Rajeesh and his colleagues worked 12 hours shifts in the ward and were given a daily allowance of Rs 640. Apart from the cleaning staff, nurses and nursing assistants too were hired as contract employees during the peak of the worst epidemic break out in Kozhikode.
Within the span of a month, the Nipah Virus scare was contained - thanks to the staff and doctors at Baby Memorial Hospital and Kozhikode Medical College - two centres where Nipah positive cases were treated.
At the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital, the isolation ward was converted into a fever ward and the contract staff were then asked to work here, where patients with dengue, common fever, malaria and the likes were being treated.
As the state gradually recovered from the Nipah scare, the state government also rewarded those who risked their lives to work at hospitals and treat patients during the crisis period. These brave men and women were hailed as the heroes of Nipah.
Nipah Virus heroes protest
But seven months later, the contracts of these ‘heroes’ have been terminated by the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital. Today, 42 staff members who worked inside the Nipah Virus isolation ward are protesting outside the hospital to get their jobs back.
“We too risked our lives during the epidemic. The Health Minister (KK Shailaja teacher) had promised us that the government would make our jobs permanent,” Rajeesh said.
Those protesting outside the hospital are 30 members of the cleaning staff, seven nurses and five nursing assistants. On December 31, he hospital management announced that their services were no longer required from January 1.
The hospital said they could not make the positions of these employees permanent and were instead asked to attend interviews for permanent job vacancies along with other applicants. The management promised a special consideration during the interviews to those who worked inside the isolation ward.
“We did not want to attend as they never selected us even the last time. There is usually a lot of vacancies for cleaning staff. Last time there were vacancies in the Women and Child Hospital inside the medical college and 30 of us had attended. But none of us got the job except for one lady. So what special consideration are they speaking of?” Rajeesh says.
‘Regularisation of contract employees violates SC judgement’
Speaking to TNM, Superintendent of the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital, Dr Sajith Kumar, said that it was beyond the scope and rights of the hospital authorities to give permanent positions to temporary staff.
“We are not authorised to do that. We had invited them to sit for interviews along with other applicants but none of them turned up this time,” he said.
It was in August when contract staff like Rajeesh were given their first extension by the state government. This was extended once again in November for 60 days. However, with the new year, this extension has also expired. The protestors were still hopeful that the government would step in and help them especially Health Minister KK Shailaja as promised.
But contrary to their hopes, the government’s response too has been vague this time around. Making the jobs of these employees permanent would violate an old Supreme Court judgement which prohibits regularisation of contract employees, a representative from the Health Ministry told TNM.
“We had initially tried to give them permanent jobs in the hospital. But we realised that this violates the SC judgement in the Uma Devi Vs State of Karnataka 2006 case which does not allow regularisation of contract employees working for the government. The Health Minister had never ‘promised’ to make their jobs permanent. She had said that they would try. But this cannot be done by violating an SC judgement. We are trying our best to give temporary vacancies to these people,” the representative said.
The protestors have maintained that the demonstration will go on until all of them get their jobs back.
“So far one lady has been employed and 17 other women and 2 male cleaning staff were not given jobs. Further none of the five nursing assistants have been considered. We were even promised a risk allowance for working inside the isolation wards. None of us have got it yet,” Rajeesh said.