May 24, 2020

Enough of Flowers, Give Us Safety Gear: Frontline Workers Demand

A R Sindhu

AT the call of the CITU, more than four lakh workers across 400 districts in the country took part in protest activities on May 14, the Demands Day. They raised the crucial question of safety of the frontline workers and those working in industries risking infection during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The protests took place in 10,000 places and while many workers came on to the streets to express their protest, many others protested from their homes demanding safety gear. The workers raised the slogans kafee hua phool, suraksha aur beema abhi do” (enough of flowers, give us safety gear and insurance cover now!). Workers from organised industries like coal and steel to the unorganised sector workers – village chowkidars, panchayat sanitation workers apart from hospital employees and frontline scheme workers – participated in the programme.

As per the government statistics, 548 doctors, nurses and paramedical staff have been infected till now. This does not include the field workers like ASHA workers, anganwadis, ANMs, and NHM employees or even ward boys, sanitation workers, security guards, lab attendants, peons, laundry and kitchen staff etc.  With more and more frontline workers falling prey to the infection everyday in the country, mainly due to the lack of safety gears, the CITU has taken up the issue along with other pressing issues of distress of migrant workers and the attack on the rights of the working class by the government.

The case of a hospital in Mumbai where 26 nurses and three doctors got infected has come as a big shock to the health workers community. Daily reports of field workers – ASHA, anganwadi workers getting infected has also been on the rise. Many cases of workers collapsing and dying on duty were reported and it is to be noted that they were not even tested for Covid-19. In most of the states, the majority of the workers are not entitled to the much publicised Rs 50 lakh insurance package and the insurance does not cover the expenses for treatment.

Even police personnel are denied treatment and some of them have succumbed to Covid-19. According to the government of Maharashtra, there are 487 police personnel who got infected in the state only. Journalists are no exception and 53 of them have been reported to have contracted the infection in the city of Mumbai alone.

There are lakhs of workers providing essential services to the people by exposing themselves to the virus and many of them are not given adequate safety gears. Often, they have been working without even food and the government has failed to provide compensation or treatment for those who are infected during duty.

As of now, Modi government has declared only Rs 15,000 crore as Covid package for health sector while the total budget for health in our country (Rs 69,000 crore in 2020-21) is merely one per cent of the GDP. It was a long pending demand of the working class movement to provide a minimum of 5 per cent of the GDP to the vital sector. One must recall that the Modi government has written off Rs 68,000 crore of loans of 50 industrialists including Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi, Nirav Modi and Baba Ramdev this year. 

These facts have created much anger among the frontline workers, which was seen in massive participation on the demands day. In many places, the sanitation workers gathered in large numbers and submitted memoranda to the authorities on demands of safety gear and insurance and compensation. ASHA workers who are the worst-hit, participated in large numbers in all the states. Anganwadi workers and helpers, other NHM workers, hospital employees etc participated in large scale. Municipal and panchayat sanitation workers also participated massively.  In many hospitals where there are no CITU union, employees including doctors and nurses participated.

As per the CITU call, in many places, other unions have distributed food, masks, sanitisers, soaps etc to the frontline workers to extend solidarity. The Demands Day was observed also by Bank Employees’ Federation of India (BEFI) and Transport Workers Federation also took part in the protests.

In many states, workers from the industry joined the protest raising the demands of safety and withdrawal of anti-worker labour law changes and the introduction of a 12 hour working day. Organisations like AIKS, AIAWU, AIDWA, DYFI and SFI supported the call and organised solidarity actions in many places.