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Phases of the Faceless Guarding Angels

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The recent modification in the wages in Delhi reminded me of the times I had spent in hospital last year talking to the various employees there. Here’s an account:

“Sir, let me seek permission first. I am requesting you, please do not go inside. Else, I will lose my job,” a security guard begs to a patient’s attendant outside the Intensive Care Unit of a private hospital. But, the attendant — least bothered of one’s job — without waiting for the permission, breaks in. Roshan, the guard, was lucky this time as the doctors had heard the arguments between the two and noticed the guard’s efforts of stopping the attendant. Otherwise, such violations of rules directly get escalated to the hospital administration and risk the guards’ jobs. For the guards, it’s a two-edged sword: they get penalized for not performing their duties and also when attendants complain against them on performing their duties. Amid such fear, the unskilled or semi-skilled employees work at private hospitals of cities.

Roshan, who is employed by the contractor, works for 12 hours at a stretch. The guards in most private hospitals are not allowed to sit throughout the duty hours while they stare at the seats provided for the attendants. On caught sitting, they can be scolded by their supervisors, who too are contractual employees. Yet, the guard look for spaces and less-busy hours to cheat the rule. As soon as he gets home, Roshan crashes on his cot to prepare himself for another hard day. In the process, he generally skips his meal. Worst, when a rostered guard takes a leave: there is no replacement. The guards already on duty have to compensate by doing a double shift: 24 hours at a stretch.

The concluding month of 2017 wasn’t that good for the contractual supervisors. They have been asked to leave as the hospital has decided to employ supervisors internally. Roshan with other guards was discussing the whereabouts: if the new supervisor would be more strict or lenient. As the supervisors until now had been from the same company, they often used to ignore mild mistakes or had taken actions internally. “Will the new supervisors be the same? They might exaggerate each and every mistake, and escalate them to the contractors,” one of the guards exclaimed.

Another contractual guard, Kumar, used to be a teacher in a primary school in Bihar. Due to insufficient remuneration to run a family, he left that reputed job and migrated to Delhi. He’d initially applied for clerical jobs apart from something in teaching. On failing to get either, he ended up as a security guard. Kumar stays alone in a one-room rented accommodation while his family stays in Bihar. He cooks to save money than eating outside. He has a fresh burn-scar on his fingers. “I dozed off while baking chapatis with fingers on the pan. Woke up when my finger was already burnt,” giggled Kumar.

The guards get paid between Rs 11,000 to Rs 19,000 approximately depending on their tenure. They thank the Delhi Government for revising the minimum wage which could spike the slab this far. However, many of the contractual guards, especially the new-joinees, don’t get paid the regulated amount. Despite charging the hospital the set amount, the contractor deducts the commission.

Often their salaries are delayed for as long as 15 days. Few do not utter anything out of fear of losing the job, whereas the supervisor ignores others’ calls. “We know what our salary should be for the time we work and that what they are paying is illegal. But, if we rebel, there are many readily available to replace us for half our pay,” a guard lamented. “The hospital isn’t too happy on increasing our pay. That’s why, they reduced 72 guards to 54 and fired all the supervisors,” he added.

Not one suffers

Other contractual employees meet the same fate. Gudiya, a lady cleaner, told us that they work for 12 hours a day, all seven days a week and get only two offs in a month. Their counterparts — employed by the hospital — work for eight hours a day and get five offs a month, apart from other benefits. “They don’t understand that we need to wash clothes for our family, apart from other personal work we may have. To them, we aren’t humans, we don’t need rest… Put aside an ethical work environment, we can’t even consult the doctors here if a family member gets sick, for something as minimal as a mild fever,” grieved Gudiya.

Asha, a general duty assistant (GDA as they call it), was raised by an abandoned mother and is herself a single parent to her two kids. They study in a nearby government school. “When my father or husband has never been concerned about us, I don’t expect anything from others. The government also thinks about the divorced Muslim women, but not abandoned Hindu wives,” howled Asha (referring to the hyped Triple Talaq debate).

Hopes alive

Amid such dismay, there are few who silently work for a better future. “I do not want my kids to bear the same pain,” vowed Gaurav, whose two kids are studying in a DAV School in Bihar, a private English-medium school, as he explained. “The expenses with a private school are a lot and quite frequent. I don’t save anything by the end of the month. I am uncertain on how will I manage their higher studies. But, if God has dragged us this far, He would lead us ahead too,” he added.

These are the staffs of private hospitals whose charges are more than that of 5-star hotels. In the last six months, I have visited and stayed in about four private hospitals of Delhi-NCR for about months to treat a family member. Situation is same everywhere.

Life may have become better for many laborers, who migrate from small towns to the capital, but the shortcomings remain, which they accept as their fate. Visitors overlook the guards, who open the gates for them or the cleaners, who offer tissues to them in loos. Policy-makers ignore them too and even desirable regulations are passed, the lack of a checks favor the exploiters.

(Names of the individuals are changed to maintain confidentiality)

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