INDIA – ‘Think about us’: India’s underpaid women health workers to government

Rushing from one home to another in a village in western India, one health worker said she could not afford to take a breather. Working to keep Covid-19 at bay while caring for mothers and babies, they race between households to meet job targets and earn bonuses for an average monthly wage of 4,000 rupees (US$ 54) that is derisory.

Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) are the government’s recognised health workers who are usually the first point of contact in rural India, where there is often limited or no direct access to healthcare facilities. “ASHA workers have emerged as the backbone of primary healthcare in India,” said physician Abhay Bang, founder of the public health non-profit, Search.

Many of the one million all-female ASHAs – who have conducted door-to-door checks to trace coronavirus patients in addition to their usual duties – went on strike in August 2020 to demand job recognition, better pay and proper protective gear. “Now we work all hours, with no days off,” said one 33-year-old ASHA who used to do farm work shifts to supplement her ASHA income before the coronavirus pandemic struck India in March.

Enlisted as part of a 2005 national programme to boost healthcare services across rural India – from maternal care to vaccination drives – ASHA workers are treated like volunteers and not covered by state governments’ minimum wage legislation. They recently received a 33% raise to their basic monthly salary due to the pandemic, and get bonuses for “extra” tasks, e.g. 50 rupees (US$ 0.50) for ensuring five children are immunised and 600 rupees for taking pregnant women to hospital to give birth. Yet labour economists and campaigners said ASHA workers are still hugely underpaid for their duties. “In the name of community service, they are working without commensurate remuneration or rights,” said KR Shyam Sunder, a professor at the Xavier School of Management in Jharkhand.

Ranjana Nirula, convener of the All India Coordination Committee of ASHA Workers, which is their trade union, said: “This is part of unpaid labour of women and is seen as an extension of the work women do at home.”

Payment records for the month of July reviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation of nearly 600 ASHA workers from four states – Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – revealed average monthly earnings of about 4,000 rupees (US$ 55).

SOURCE: Al Jazeera, 29 August 2020

PHOTO: Healthcare workers are showered with flower petals during an event to show gratitude towards the front-line warriors fighting Covid-19 [File,Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]