Scheme Workers and Their Struggles
Almost one crore scheme workers all over the country shoulder the burden of implementing several important public schemes of the central government on health and education. They include ASHA workers (working under National Rural Health Mission program), Anganvadi workers (working under ICDS program) and MDM workers (working under Mid Day Meal scheme for school children). Almost 95% of the scheme workers in the country are women. These scheme workers are the backbone in ensuring basic health and nutrition to vast majority of the country’s population. Their work ensures institutional delivery of child, vaccination, rural health care programmes, eradication of malnutrition, elementary education of children up to age of 6 years and Mid day meal to the children going to primary/middle schools.
These scheme workers who deliver some of the most essential services to the nation are themselves at the receiving end of ruthless and cruel exploitation of their labour. Their duties and responsibilities are defined but they are not treated as a government employee or a worker. They are neither paid legal minimum wages nor wages equal to their counterparts employed by the government, but a paltry amount in the name of honourarium or incentive. Such a huge number of scheme workers do not have access to social security facilities like EPF, ESI etc. Their long-standing demand of recognition as government employees with permanent positions have been ignored by both the Central and respective state governments. If the central government conveniently denied their existence when it came to meeting their demands, the state governments escaped from their responsibility citing the schemes being under the central government. They are being treated as employer-less employees. They are being called as “volunteers” implying “forced labour” that is prohibited by applicable labour laws. Scheme workers struggle to wriggle themselves out of the status of “forced volunteers” and demand the status of government employees and associated rights, benefits and working conditions. Even the demand of recognising them as “workers” to begin with and at least, to pay minimum wages is also being denied. This is the status of frontline workers who have dedicated themselves to the wellness and welfare of the country and the people. The central and state governments deny them legally due rights and wages while engaging them to serve the nation.
In the period of raging pandemic, the scheme workers are being deployed in Covid related duties without any special incentives or wages. They are also effectively denied of 50 lakhs insurance in case of death. The government has just ignored the fact that the scheme workers are risking their lives while fulfilling their duty in the Pandemic.
ASHAs Struggle for Rights and Dignity
The condition of ASHAs is the worst among all scheme workers. Since pre-covid days they are expected to be on duty 24×7. The ASHAs have to be on their feet anytime of the day to bring a pregnant woman to Primary Health Centre of the area for child birth or any other illness. An ASHA is expected to work even in odd hours without even making any arrangement of transportation by the government.
The scheme workers can only fight for their rights by collectively and unitedly pressurising a government that does not even recognise them as workers. Unionising the scheme workers was thus an important task for the trade union movement in the country. The AICCTU has taken several initiatives to organise and unionise the scheme workers in different parts of the country. In Bihar, our fraternal Non-gazetted Employees Federation (NGEFed) took a laudable initiative to form a state level trade union of ASHA workers and to lead them in their struggles. The union now has a large network spreading to all districts and blocks. The union has emerged as a major union in the state and is leading militant struggles of ASHA workers who are predominantly women. Similar initiatives of unionising the scheme workers have been successfully taken in various states in the country, including Assam, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. In order to provide necessary fillip to the process of developing a closer contact and co-operation among the unions in different states, an All India Scheme Workers Federation (AISWF) was also floated by AICCTU. The formation of federation has yielded desired result of significant expansion and unionisation of scheme workers in different states.
In the specific context of Bihar, the scheme workers have fought prolonged battles for their rights. ASHAs of Bihar, along with the above fundamental demands, have also been demanding for a dignified honorarium as has been paid by many other state governments, for example Rs 10,000 per month provided by Telangana state government to ASHAs. When the government denied to pay heed to their demands, they launched a course of agitations. The ASHA Joint Struggle Front of three Left trade unions was formed in 2018. A historic indefinite strike of ASHAs of Bihar continued for 38 days, from 1st December 2018 to 7th January 2019. Bihar ASHAs, the women workers, who never had the experience of any struggle, blocked the roads at nearly 400 places and blocked the trains at more than 100 locations in the state, defying all threats and intimidation by the government. All PHCs remained almost paralysed due to the strike. At last, the government came to the negotiation table and after five rounds of talks an agreement on 17 points was arrived at. The state government agreed to pay a fixed monthly honorarium of Rs.1000 per month. The Bihar Rajya ASHA Workers Association (BRAWA) affiliated to NGEFed/AICCTU emerged as a popular and committed union in the course of the movement. This strike of the ASHA workers of Bihar was also an inspiration and an energiser for ASHA organizations in other states to carry their movement forward.
Mid-Day Meal (MDM) and Anganvadi Workers
The MDM cooks and helpers and Anganvadi teachers and assistants have also organised themselves in different states to demand their rights and dignified working conditions. The AICCTU has outreached to MDM cooks in most of the districts of Bihar. Several successful campaigns have been conducted on their demands. Some important struggles have been organised at district levels as well. Organisations of MDM Cooks are active in Jharkhand and West Bengal as well where several significant initiatives have been taken. Among Anganvadi workers, we have a sustained and long standing work in Maharashtra. The union in Maharashtra has been taking up series of initiatives to build up movement around the issues of workers and have been successful in several instances in pressurising the government.
On the call of central trade unions and federations, a three day long Mahapadav (gathering) was held at Parliament Street, Delhi from 9 to 11 November, 2017. The Mahapadav witnessed massive participation of scheme workers from all over the country. The role of AICCTU in leading the Mahapadav was significant. The success of participation in Mahapadav was also one of the backdrops that formed the basis for AICCTU to float a federation of scheme workers called All India Scheme Workers Federation (AISWF).
Along with fighting for their own rights at trade union level, they have also tried to turn it into a political issue. With the government disowning this section of workers, the need to articulate their demands at a political plane and direct the movement in a politico-trade union orientation assumes immense importance. The scheme workers have also actively intervened in political campaign during elections to hold the political parties accountable to their plight. ASHA workers slogan of “No Vote to BJP” became quite popular in the assembly elections in Bihar. In last assembly elections in five states too, AICCTU affiliated scheme workers’ unions played an active role in making their issues an important agenda of the election.
The Pandemic and the Scheme Workers
Since first wave of Corona in the country, the ASHAS and Anganvadi workers are playing the role of frontline health care workers. ASHA and Anganvadi workers are engaged in tracing Covid infected patients, door to door survey, mobilising people for vaccination and awareness campaigns to follow the Corona guidelines among common people in their respective areas of work. MDM cooks are engaged in cooking meals for Covid infected patients in quarantine centres across rural areas of the country. Many MDM cooks have also got infected while discharging their duty. Many of them have succumbed to Covid.
But, the government has shamelessly shrugged off its responsibilities of providing free treatment to scheme workers who have been infected in the course of their duty. The promised insurance benefit of Rs 50 Lakhs to the dependents of the deceased workers under PMGKY has been denied to these workers. They are being denied the 50 lakhs insurance under some flimsy grounds of “not being assigned” in taking care of Covid patients directly. The clause of direct engagement with or assignment of Covid patients excludes a vast majority of scheme workers from the promise of insurance of 50 lakhs in case of death to frontline workers. Hence, it is very pertinent to demand removal of such a clause for applicability of insurance to frontline health workers.
The frontline scheme workers are not being provided minimum safety kits like masks, gloves, sanitizer etc. Nor have they been given proper training to maintain personal safety while on duty during the pandemic.
No special wage or incentive or allowance has been sanctioned to these frontline scheme workers till now. The scheme workers have categorically demanded Rs 500 wage per work day or Rs 10,000 monthly incentives for their work in fighting the pandemic. The government is conveniently ignoring these demands of the scheme workers who are literally risking their lives in providing needed service during the pandemic.
The unions of scheme workers are tirelessly raising the demand for safety and rights of the workers during pandemic. The AISWF observed an all-India Strike of scheme workers on 8th and 9th August, 2020. The unions of scheme workers are continuing with their repeated protests demanding safety and rights of the workers while maintaining all Covid protocols.
The Covid pandemic has once again brought to limelight the importance of the services and labour that the scheme workers provide for the functioning of the basic health care services of the nation. They are the front soldiers in the country’s fight against Corona. Yet, the government continues to deny even basic rights to them as workers. It is time that the indifferent attitude of the governments to the demands of scheme workers is confronted in an organised and effective way. It is time to strengthen the union and the movement of the scheme workers.
All India Demand Day- On 31 May
All India Scheme Workers Federation
Ensure Rs. 10,000 as monthly Corona allowance to all Scheme workers like ASHAs, Anganwadi and Mid-day meal employees!
Ensure Rs. 10 lakh Health insurance to them!
Ensure Rs. 50 lakh Life insurance coverage, without the condition of direct/indirect engagement!
Ensure availability of protective gear, equipment, etc. for all.