Victory for AISA and Student Community! Stipend for Lab-based Trainee Students Restored!   

The student community of Trivandrum Medical College gained a significant victory under the leadership of All India Students' Association (AISA) over the grave systemic injustice of the college towards its laboratory-based trainee students. At the peak of the pandemic period, the college withdrew the stipend facility of trainee students and exploited their free labour coupled with poor and discriminatory working conditions. After months of sustained pressure from students under AISA leadership, the stipend and lab facilities has been restored for the Trivandrum District Medical College Lab Technician (DMLT) trainee students. Along with stipends, demands addressing gender-based needs were also placed before the management. Finally, the college conceded to the demands via a notification very recently. A stipend of  Rs 6000 per month will be paid from April 2022 onwards for the next six months. Alongside, providing lab facilities as per requirements of the course, adequate restroom facilities, prior information on duty timings and schedules will also be ensured. It is expected that the succeeding batches will also be extended the same facilities thanks to the students struggle led by AISA.

Background of the Struggle

Trivandrum Medical College Lab Tech Trainee students have been facing an acute financial and educational crisis due to the abrupt denial of stipendiary contracts that was available to the previous batches. 14 students, all women, were not even provided proper restroom facilities. They had to put in the same number of working hours as that of any nursing student along with back-to-back night duties. Lab technician students were compelled to do ward duties, posted in casualty and denied requisite lab facilities for the six-month course. On top of this, the authorities refused to attend to their just and legitimate grievances.

AISA activists of Kerala visited the students several times from November 2021. Along with the students, they made direct appeals and issued written petitions to the authorities, including HDS Superintendent regarding the issues of students. With the on-ground support from Trivandrum District Leading Team of CPI (ML) Liberation, active support by trade union leaders like Com. Athmanandan and also with the full solidarity by AISA team from far away districts, the struggle could finally secure victory.

Demands and Concerns

Restoring stipend system, proper lab facilities, restrooms and appropriate working hours were the demands. The demand that the stipend be given with effect from the date of the initial contract has not been entertained. Instead, the stipend has been approved from the date of signing the new contract with prospective effect. Other demands regarding lab facilities, restrooms, and proper schedules have been met. Another matter of concern is that five of the 14 students who have failed in their written exams are denied of any stipend. Given the inadequate facilities and financial constraints faced by the students, the concerned authorities should do the needful to redress their problems. They must help in enabling the students to clear the exams at the earliest. The students shall be issued stipend with retrospective effect for the free work already done by this batch for the past six months. Unfortunately, they are not included in the new contract as they could not clear their exams.

The right to wages for trainees should also be treated as a fundamental right and shall not be denied for whatever reason. Denial of minimum wages for any category of worker is nothing but a forced labour, according to the Supreme Court. But, the Kerala government and the Medical College has used Trainee students who are semi-skilled personnel as forced labour by denying even the meagre stipends, leave alone minimum wages, in the period of Corona. The College authorities not only utilised the free (forced) labour but also extended the training to upskill which is completely unfair and against principles of natural justice by all standards. Denying the right to wages by withholding a stipend is a complete violation of all applicable labour laws and also a violation of human rights rights. Treating Trainees as voluntary service providers and not compensating their labor is completely illegal and nothing but an adoption of forced labour. The left led Kerala government should take cognizance of this violation and compensate the students for their labour of six months in the period of Corona. Trainees shall also be given minimum wages or at least, the stipend equivalent to minimum wages. Rs 6000 as stipend is nothing but a pittance and a mockery of valuable medical service offered by these trainees for the larger welfare of the society and the state. In fact, their services should be honoured by the medical authorities and the state government, that too in the trying circumstances of the period of Corona.

This issue displayed in Trivandrum Medical College throws light on the larger injustices being meted out to medical apprentices and trainees in the state. On 21 March 2022, the Governing Council of Kerala University of Health Sciences (KUHS) had recommended the decision of the Academic Council (dated 15 December 2015) that instructed all the affiliated self-financing and dental colleges to strictly comply with its directive "to grant stipends to interns of UG and PG courses at par with the interns of government colleges." The Kerala High Court, in 2015, had upheld the order of Medical Council of India directing private medical colleges to pay stipends to PG medical students on par with government medical colleges. About 150 PG dental students approached the Kerala High Court in 2018 challenging the non-payment and disparity in stipend disbursal by self-financing medical colleges. The private college managements in the state are unwilling to abide by the recent KUHS directive too, as it would reduce the quantum of loot they amass from students’ labour. Students who do not want to be left out of medical education are often forced to join the self-financing colleges and end up facing multiple problems. Anil Kumar Valli, a functionary of the Kerala Private College Management Association, is reported to have said that the tuition fee paid by self-financing students were fixed on the basis of the expenditure incurred by the institution. As the payment of stipend is not taken into consideration while calculating the fee, the tuition fee will have to be revised if stipends were to be paid on par with government medical college. They are not ashamed to accept their criminal negligence of ignoring the labour of students.

AISA stands its ground for affordable and universal education, and against the notion of burdening students with the financial needs of the educational establishments. The authorities at the TMC informed students that they were on a non-stipendiary contract due to lack of funds and Covid crisis. This is only a pretext to earn profit by denying stipends amidst a public health crisis. Even if there was a real financial crisis, students labour shall not be used as a bonded labour and the burden should never be shifted onto the shoulders of students. In 2020, similar arguments were invoked over the irregular payment of salaries for doctors, paramedics, and other staff members of Palakkad Government Medical College as the government did not release adequate funds.

AISA will continue its struggle for students' rights and for the rights of trainees and apprentices who face exploitation in contractual appointments. The movement against institutionalized servitude and colonial education will continue in full vigour to achieve a pro-people, scientific and all-inclusive education system.