“I am jobless for the last nine months. I defaulted on the education loan I had taken to study nursing. My father recently settled it with his retirement benefit money. He now makes ends meet serving lunch to a few people at home.”

That was Samasia, one of the two nurses sacked from K Velayudhan Memorial Hospital, or KVM Hospital as it is better known, in Kerala’s Alappuzha district in July 2017 for demanding better pay and working conditions. “I am unsure about my future now,” said the 26-year-old.

The other nurse, Anumol, sounded equally worried. “I do not know how long we can live on just my husband’s income,” she said. “The very thought makes me nervous.”

The nurses were fired after they participated in a protest march organised by the United Nurses’ Association, a professional organisation of registered nurses in Kerala, demanding better pay and eight-hour shifts. With them were around 100 nurses from the hospital.

Kerala last revised nurses’ salary in 2013. According to the revised structure, hospitals with more than 100 beds must pay nurses at least Rs 12,900 a month for 208 hours of work, done in three eight-hour shifts. But nurses at KVM Hospital alleged they were forced to work for 350 hours a month in longer shifts and were not paid the revised salary.

Angered by Samasia and Anumol’s dismissal, 116 nurses from the hospital struck work from July 21, 2017, demanding their reinstatement. The stand-off took a turn for the worse when the hospital’s management dismissed all striking employees and brought nurses from outside to run the hospital.

On Wednesday, the agitation completed 200 days. “It may be one of the longest labour strikes in Kerala,” said Shoby Joseph, the state working president of the United Nurses’ Association.

Yet, the possibility of reconciliation remains remote with the management insisting that it cannot reinstate the sacked nurses. Indeed, the state’s labour commissioner held “reconciliatory talks” with the representatives of the United Nurses’ Association and the management on Tuesday, but they failed to end the deadlock.

The nurses have now pinned their hopes on the next round of discussion called by the labour commissioner on March 14.

Until then, Samasia and Anumol have no option but to continue their strike. Every day, they go to a tent erected in front of the hospital and raise slogans demanding justice. “We have no option but to fight against the mighty hospital owners,” Samasia said. “Hope we will get justice soon.”

‘Horrible conditions’

Samasia recounted that working conditions in the hospital were so “horrible” she often ended up working 48 hours at a stretch. “I was posted in the cath lab during my first stint,” she said. “I used to get the night shift most days. It meant I worked 10 hours continuously, from 8 pm to 6 am the next day. Even after that, I had to stay back if we had many angioplasty procedures.”

Despite such heavy workload, she was paid a monthly salary of Rs 9,000. “They deducted Rs 1,000 every month with the promise that it would be reimbursed at the time of my resignation and Rs 10 to buy gifts for employees who would get married,” said Samasia, who completed a bachelor’s in nursing from KVM Nursing College, owned by the hospital, in 2013. “At the end of the month, I got just Rs 7,990.”

She has not received the promised reimbursement money till date, she claimed.

Samasia’s first stint with the hospital ended in July 2016, and she returned in February 2017. “I was in need of a job,” she said. “So I didn’t care much when they hired me as a trainee without considering my experience. In July, I took active part in organising the United Nurses’ Association protest demanding the implementation of the revised pay package and the system of three eight-hour shifts. And it resulted in my expulsion.”

The sacked nurses protest in Alappuzha. Photo via Facebook/United Nurses’ Association

‘I was shocked’

Anumol said her termination was rather dramatic. “I was preparing to go home on July 29 morning after the night shift,” she recalled. “The nursing superintendent came and told me not to come to the hospital from the next day. I was shocked and it took some time to recuperate. I had participated in the United Nurses’ Association’s march and that was the sole reason for my dismissal.”

Anumol had joined the hospital in 2017 after over three years working in different hospitals. “I was hired as a trainee for a monthly salary of Rs 8,500,” she said. “They didn’t consider my experience. They terminated me seven months after I joined. My family is finding it difficult to survive with my husband’s single income.”

Anumol said she never expected the strike to continue for so long. “Nurses are struggling to survive,” she said. “So, we want to see this strike end. We hope the management will show better sense.”

‘Can’t take them back’

The hospital’s director, Dr VV Haridas, maintained that it was “impossible to reinstate all 116 striking nurses”. “We don’t want them,” he said. “At the best we can accommodate 20 of them. We have recently hired 55 nurses. We can’t afford to pay huge salaries.”

He claimed the hospital, established 46 years ago, has incurred “huge losses” as a result of the strike. “Ours is a 200-bed hospital,” he said. “Only 50 patients are being treated now. We have lost Rs 10 crore in the last six months.”

Joseph, on the other hand, said the nurses will not budge until their demands are met. “The hospital management is not ready to implement the revised salary package and three-shift duty,” he said. “They are also flouting rules by appointing experienced nurses as trainees. Samasia and Anumol were hired as trainees in violation of the rules. We will continue the agitation until we get justice.”