War of the unions in hospitals

Virulent trade unionism is threatening patient-care services at some of the city's top private hospitals despite chief minister Mamata Banerjee's call to her party colleagues to steer clear of the health care sector.

Local Trinamul leaders wanting to set up their own unions have approached several hospitals along the Bypass where there were once Citu unions for contractual staff and little trade union trouble.

At least two hospitals got a glimpse of the changing face of trade unionism recently when local Trinamul leaders led contractual employees in protest, using loudspeakers to bombard the authorities with slogans.

"We were drawing up expansion plans here but following interference from the ruling party we may be forced to look at a neighbouring state instead," said the director of a Bypass hospital, on condition of anonymity.

Citu has apparently mounted a fightback to retain its flock of 9,000-odd contractual employees, leaving the hospitals stuck between the warring unions.

A Trinamul leader who is in charge of the contractual employees' unions controlled by the party, said on Tuesday that his group had lodged a complaint with the state labour commissioner against Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals for allegedly not paying the minimum stipulated wage to outsourced staff.

"We had approached the hospital a few months back to allow us to form a union of contract workers but they refused. Only Citu is running a union. We filed a complaint against the hospital management with the labour commissioner today," Trinamul leader Amalendu Ghosh told Metro.

The minimum wage for contract workers at private hospitals is Rs 5,739 after a hike of Rs 345 this January.

"We have received complaint about Apollo not paying the minimum wage," claimed Ghosh, who is also the working president of the contract workers' union at the RN Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences.

Sources said Ghosh had written to the Apollo Gleneagles management, seeking recognition for the Trinamul union.

The hospital contested the allegation that contract staff were not getting the minimum stipulated wage. "We strictly follow all labour rules and laws. There is no question of violating the law," said Rupali Basu, the CEO of Apollo Gleneagles.

Officials of several hospitals said they feared trouble with "outsiders" trying to meddle in day-to-day management decisions. "There is an atmosphere of fear. Other hospitals are waiting their turn when some Trinamul leader will call or walk into the office and cause trouble," a senior hospital executive said.

One of the ills afflicting government-run health care institutions in Bengal is the employees' reluctance to work, which the unions not only condone but also encourage. "It will be unfortunate for the state if employees of private hospitals tread the same path and get away with it," said a doctor who did not wish to be named.

A senior executive of one of the hospitals along the Bypass said the system followed so far was to get the outsourcing agency to replace any underperforming worker.

"But intervention by the unions has been preventing this of late. Outsiders, most of them young guns from Trinamul, are demanding that we allow them to form unions. We have no problem with that but if outsiders are involved, it can affect patient-care services," he warned.

Sources said the RN Tagore Institute, Kothari Medical Centre and some others had already recognised the Trinamul unions under duress, while Vision Care was facing an agitation.

On Monday, Trinamul and Citu supporters staged protests at Vision Care hospital over a guard being shifted out, one for and the other against him. "The management was not satisfied with the performance of the guard and had asked the contracted agency to replace him. Trinamul is opposing the replacement while Citu wants it," a source said.

Trinamul staged its agitation outside the hospital gate while a section of the pro-Citu contractual staff ceased work for some time.

Most of the large hospitals have outsourced their housekeeping, security and FandB wings to specialist agencies. Several of these agencies provide manpower to both private and government hospitals.

"Over the last few months, Trinamul has been trying to make inroads into private hospitals. Either some of the workers who were earlier with Citu are visiting local Trinamul offices or the leaders are approaching them," said the co-owner of a security agency.

Hospital sources said although Citu had lost clout, its leaders were trying to regain lost ground by opposing any attempt to form a rival union. "Citu unions have been there for years and have an understanding with the management that whatever happens, work should not be affected. But with Trinamul, most leaders are from outside and their interference means patient-care services could suffer," an official said.

Transport minister Madan Mitra, who is said to be playing a role in "resolving" labour problems at private hospitals, said the government was against disruption. "We have amicably settled labour problems at RN Tagore, Kothari and others. Apollo Gleneagles is next in line," he said.

Sources said chief minister Mamata had assured representatives of private hospitals that workers' unions wouldn't create trouble.

During Left rule, AMRI Salt Lake and CMRI had been affected by trade-union trouble, sending them scurrying to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.