Contract health workers in Pune hired for COVID-19 duty fight a recruitment company for their salaries

Health workers of Sassoon Hospital, attached to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Medical College, in Pune gather to talk with the dean and to get pending dues on 23 November 2020. Pratham Gokhale / Hindustan Times

On 10 November 2020, Rupali Khekan filed a case against the recruiting company Career Zone in the labour court of Pune. For months, Khekan had been struggling to get the money owed to her for work as a lab technician at the COVID-19 ward of Sassoon Hospital. Career Zone hired her for the position and abruptly fired her after three months. Khekan claimed she had not been fully paid for that period. She told me that she had already pleaded with Bhagyeshree Thakur, the head of Career Zone, and complained to the dean of Sassoon Hospital. When nothing seemed to work, she approached the courts. “Why was I having to grovel for my own money?” she asked. “I felt like a beggar.” 

Khekan, who is 26 years old, started working at Sassoon Hospital in August 2020. Sassoon Hospital is one of the largest government hospitals in Pune with a capacity of 1,200 beds. It is attached to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Medical College and a nurses’ training school. The college has a teaching staff of more than 260 doctors, and 200 MBBS and 144 postgraduate students graduating from the college each year. Amid rising COVID-19 cases in April 2020, the hospital launched a dedicated 1,000-bed COVID-19 facility in a newly-constructed building. The hospital hired Career Zone, the recruiting company Thakur founded in 2008, to fulfill staff requirements of Sassoon’s new COVID-19 facility. According to the Career Zone’s website, it specialises in “recruitment consultancy and office placement,” and caters to close to seventy clients, including companies like Infosys, Capgemini and Tech Mahindra. Career Zone hired ancillary staff for Sassoon hospital during the first wave of the pandemic. Khekan was one among hundreds of lab technicians, nurses and social workers hired on six-month contracts. 

Khekan was assigned to the hospital’s COVID-19 ward, where she collected blood samples. She was promised a salary of Rs 25,000 per month. But she was paid only Rs 15,000 in August and again in September. At 10 pm on 31 October—a Saturday—Khekan got a phone call from Career Zone’s offices asking her not to come to work from the next day. “How could they just remove us like this in the middle of the night?” she asked. “No notice period, nothing.” 

On the following Monday, 25 lab technicians, all of whose contracts had been terminated along with Khekan, forced their way into the room that served as Thakur’s temporary office inside Sassoon Hospital, demanding that they be paid the full amount they were owed. In addition to not having been fully remunerated for August and September, they had not been paid at all for October. According to Khekan, Thakur was noncommittal. “She kept saying that Sassoon Hospital had not filed our work order yet, that she had not got payment from the hospital yet,” she said. The technicians then spoke to Murlidhar Tambe, the dean of Sassoon Hospital, who assured them that the hospital had paid Career Zone and he did not know why Thakur had not paid the contract workers. “He said, ‘It’s not my responsibility. Talk to your contractor,’” Khekan said.

Stuck between the hospital and the recruitment company, Khekan and three other technicians filed a case against Career Zone in the labour court. In January 2021, the court ordered a settlement in which Thakur agreed to pay Khekan the money she was owed. Khekan received her salary for August and September 2020 soon after the settlement in January and her salary for October 2020 in April. 

Khekan was luckier than most workers that Career Zone hired. Technicians, nurses and social workers who worked at Sassoon Hospital for varied periods during the first COVID-19 wave in 2020 suffered a wide array of problems. Some told me they were still owed salaries. Others have not been refunded the security deposits they made while accepting the contract jobs. Some gave Thakur their original documents and education certificates, which have not been returned. According to the workers’ contracts, a portion of their salaries were to be deposited into a provident fund every month. Almost everyone I spoke to who had been hired and fired by Career Zone complained that the company had deposited less than the mandatory 12 percent of salary into their provident fund accounts. Workers had several other complaints—a lack of clarity about salaries, which were often not mentioned on the offer letter; food and accommodation, which was promised but was either never provided or abruptly stopped; and dismissive, sometimes disrespectful, treatment. According to the estimates of workers I spoke to, at least 150 nurses, 20 lab technicians and 10 social workers suffered some or all of these problems during their interactions with Career Zone. “They have mentally harassed us a lot—I can’t even tell you how much,” Pratik Deshmukh, a social worker, said. Career Zone’s Bhagyeshree Thakur hired Deshmukh to work at Sassoon Hospital on 1 October. He was fired on 31 October. 

Contract healthcare workers across India have played vital roles during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering their services for high-risk work. But they have also been provided little job security and limited monetary compensation. In an article for The Caravan in August 2020, historian Karuna Deitrich Wielenga wrote about how India exploited its healthcare workers in part by allowing the growth of a private healthcare sector “marked by low pay and insecure contracts for most employees, except senior doctors and administrators.”

Several reports have emerged during the pandemic of contract workers in various parts of the country facing mistreatment. On 11 July 2020, the  Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences and Research and its associated Hakeem Abdul Hameed Centenary Hospital in New Delhi abruptly fired 84 nurses. On the same day, the institute held walk-in interviews to recruit nurses for a 12-month period at a lower pay scale. On 24 July, 11 contractual nursing staff members were fired from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Patna, for going on strike to demand work regularisation, pay parity and healthcare facilities akin to regular staff. On 4 December, 600 contractual healthcare workers who had been protesting loss of jobs in Bhopal were lathi charged and evicted from their protest venue. 

Sassoon Hospital hires social workers through Career Zone under the Mahatma Phule Jan Arogya Yojana, a state scheme which provides free healthcare to the poor. Social workers like Deshmukh manage all the needs of the scheme’s beneficiaries, from registering them to providing counselling to families. Deshmukh, like many others hired, had to pay a security deposit of Rs 10,000 to Career Zone when he joined. His contract with Career Zone specified that since the services provided by him “are essential services, you will not be able to withdraw yourself from rendering the said services. For this purpose, you will have to submit an Undertaking/Indemnity bond to us.” Career Zone, on the other hand, would “keep its rights open to terminate you at any time, even during the first 6 months.”

Amar Jalinder Dhayagude, another social worker fired along with Deshmukh on 31 October, said, “She fired us from our job, that’s fine. That’s in the contract. But pay us our pending salaries. Give us our security deposit back.” Dhayagude’s contract did not mention how much he would be paid. He said Thakur verbally promised him Rs 20,000 per month. A number of contract workers complained of not having their salaries mentioned on their offer letters. This, they said, made it harder for them to fight for unpaid dues. 

Dhayagude did not get his salary for October 2020 even after repeated trips to Thakur’s office. He joined Khekan’s case against Career Zone in the labour court along with five other workers. Their first hearing was scheduled for 14 December. But Thakur failed to appear in court on the assigned date. They got a second date for 14 January. This time, Thakur showed up and entered into a settlement with the workers in the presence of the court, promising to pay them what they were owed. “Each of us had to write our names and the amount owed us on a piece of paper, and Thakur signed in front of each of our names,” Dhayagude said. 

After the settlement, Career Zone paid Dhayagude Rs 17,400. He has still not got the remaining Rs 2,600, which was supposed to be deposited by Career Zone into his provident fund. He has not got his security deposit of Rs 5,000 back either. His contract stipulated that he would only get his security deposit back after he completed six months of work and there is no mention of reimbursement if he is forced to leave before that period of time. 

When I spoke to Thakur on the phone on 10 May, she told me that the fault with delayed payments lay with Sassoon Hospital. She said that it was customary for government payments to be delayed by up to four months, claiming that her company could bear the cost of two months of staff salaries on its own but there was little it could do if delays extended beyond that. “Even now, February’s salaries are still pending,” she said. “Sassoon has not cleared them yet.” 

Tambe refuted the claim that Sassoon Hospital had not made the payments. He told me that the hospital had cleared all payments and the problem was on the part of Career Zone. “We have done the payment on our behalf. After that, it’s up to them,” said Tambe.

The nurses Thakur hired to work at Sassoon Hospital had it worse than other contract workers. Most nurses came to Pune from outside the city. In their contracts, Career Zone had promised them that it would provide food and accommodation over and above their salaries. For the first two months, the company put up close to 150 nurses in hotels across the city. But after that, several nurses I spoke to said that Thakur told them that it was becoming too expensive to keep up this arrangement. Subsequently, Career Zone shifted the nurses to government college hostels at the National Chemical Laboratory and College of Engineering, Pune, where the government would bear the expense of the nurses’ room and board. Several nurses told me that the living arrangements in the hostels were extremely poor—four people were crammed into each room with no possibility of social distancing, toilets were extremely dirty with no provisions to clean them, and no food arrangements were made. “Sometimes, we got food, sometimes we did not,” a 26-year-old nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “There was no system.” 

The nurse recounted that at the beginning of September, Thakur told the nurses that Career Zone would not provide them food anymore. According to the nurse, Thakur also said that the academic semester was scheduled to begin soon, and with students coming into the hostels, the nurses would have to vacate the premises. “That’s when we decided to go on strike,” the 26-year-old nurse said. On 5 October, 150 nurses protested outside Sassoon Hospital demanding proper food and accommodation. The protest went on for two days. On the third day, the nurse said that Thakur met with them and told them their problems would be addressed. Two days later, on 10 October, the 26-year-old nurse received a legal notice from Career Zone for “defamation and breach of contract.” The notice stated that “some of the staff upon your provocation have started avoiding their duties and their behaviour was improper and did not suit their profession.” The notice further accused the nurse of “attempting to irregulate the patient’s care thereby uniting the nurses working through our firm or agency and inciting all the employees to be absent from duty and forbidding them to go to work.”

The notice went on to state that the nurse “with malafide intention gave an article in News Paper Pune Mirror on October 6 2020 thereby giving defamatory remarks or statements about my client in which you have made the following defamatory remarks like my client has provided you SHARP TINY ROOMS, SLEEPING ON floors, NO PROVIDENT FUND, NO SALARY SLIPS, NO PROPER FOOD etc. (sic) which is totally false and baseless.” The news article mentioned in the notice has since been taken down. The notice ended with the nurse being called upon “to pay a sum of Rs. 15,000,00 (15 lacs) towards damage caused to reputation and financial loss caused to my client.”

Other nurses at the forefront of the protest were issued similar notices. When they failed to reply to their notices, they were terminated from service. A nurse from Sangli, who also asked not to be identified, said that the group had tried multiple times to speak to Tambe, the dean of Sassoon Hospital, but it had been of no use. “He always said, ‘You’re not under Sassoon, talk to your contractor.’ But we’re working at your hospital right? So shouldn’t you take responsibility for us?” she said. 

The 26-year-old nurse and the nurse from Sangli both said that Career Zone had not paid them their salaries for September and the first ten days of October. The company had not given the nurse from Sangli her security deposit of Rs 10,000 back. Neither nurse had received the deposits made in their names to their provident funds. Neither had received a certificate of experience for the work they did at Sassoon Hospital.  “After the legal notice, none of the nurses were willing to talk about why they left,” said the 26-year-old nurse. “I was so frustrated. In the end, it was just me and one other nurse”—the nurse from Sangli—“fighting against Thakur. There was no unity.”

Pooja Jadhav, Harshada Patil and Raman Dattratreya were among 28 nurses hired by Career Zone in August last year. They were told that they would be working at Sassoon Hospital but on reporting for duty, they found out that they had been assigned to the COVID-19 care center set up by the Pune Municipal Corporation in Baner, a suburb of Pune about 12 kilometres away from Sassoon Hospital. Since both the hospital and the care center fell under the PMC, staff members told me that it was common to be shifted from one facility to the other as and when the need arose. The nurses’ contracts mentioned salaries of Rs 35,000, as well as food and accommodation for the duration of their employment. Career Zone put all 28 nurses up at Sunshine Hotel in Baner. However, after only one day of work, the nurses lost their jobs as Career Zone lost its contract with the corporation. “When we spoke to Thakur over the phone, she told us, ‘Don’t worry. We will rehire you in a week or two. Just be patient,’” Jadhav said.

For one month, the 28 nurses continued to stay at Sunshine Hotel, waiting to rejoin duty. “When we used to ask Thakur how much longer we would have to wait, she would say, ‘If you don’t trust me, just leave now and you’ll be asked to pay the entire hotel bill yourself,’” Patil said. None of the nurses were paid for the month they were kept waiting. Patil and Dattatreya were paid Rs 1,100 for the one day they worked. Jadhav was not paid even that. Career Zone told Jadhav that it was processing her payment and that she would be compensated shortly but she never  received the money. “In the end, after keeping us in that hotel for 30 days, Thakur came and told us, ‘We won’t be getting the contract after all so you can join somewhere else,’” Dattatreya said.

When I asked Thakur about these complaints, she denied any wrongdoing. She said that everyone who had contacted her about money owed to them had been paid right away. She further insisted that she had to deposit 12 percent of employees’ salary into their provident funds each month, failing which the government would not release the next month’s payment. She contended that people who had not received their provident funds must have failed to update their KYC details. 

When I asked her about the nurses’ protest and the subsequent legal notices they received, Thakur was indignant. “If they all come in such large numbers and corner one person and blackmail them, of course I will send a notice,” she said. “They are spoiling my company’s name. They are saying that they have not gotten this and that. I have it in writing that I have paid everyone. These people don’t tell you their own mistakes.” 

I spoke to Tambe about the range of staff complaints against Thakur. He said he was not surprised. “We have given a notice to Career Zone about this,” he said. Tambe did not elaborate on the contents of this notice. He did not reply to repeated requests for clarification about any action taken by Sassoon Hospital against Career Zone. Workers I spoke to said that till the beginning of June 2021, close to one hundred and eighty people hired by Career Zone for Sassoon Hospital were still owed some form of remuneration.

Abhay Shukla, a public health activist in Maharashtra with the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, said that hiring contractual staff is in itself not a good practice. “Ideally, the hospital should engage regular, full time staff, and even if it is an emergency situation where additional staff needs to be hired, efforts should be made to absorb newly hired staff into the regular health system,” he said. He specified that according to the Contract Labour Act, 1970, responsibility for the timely payment of contractual staff rests with the principal employer and not the contractor. In this case, the principal employer would be Sassoon Hospital and, by extension, the government of Maharashtra. Shukla said that in most cases, the contractual nature of the staff becomes a pretext for the principal employer to shrug off responsibility for them and pass it on to the contractor. “What is a contractor? Just a middleman abiding by the orders of the principal employer,” Shukla said. “Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the government of Maharashtra.”

During the second wave of the pandemic, Sassoon Hospital continued to use Career Zone to hire nurses on a contract basis. Jadhav, Patil, Dattratreya as well as the two nurses hired by Career Zone to work at Sassoon Hospital who wished to remain anonymous, all got phone calls from the company in April this year asking them if they would once again want to work for Career Zone and join duty at Sassoon Hospital. All of them refused. “She wasn’t satisfied with cheating us once, she wants to cheat us again now?” Jadhav asked. 

As COVID-19 cases started rising again in March and April, Sassoon Hospital struggled to hire personnel to handle the surge in positive patients. Tambe told me that they were trying very hard to hire more lab technicians, social workers and nurses, but they were just not getting people because “there is a shortage in the market.” On hearing this, the nurse from Sangli was indignant. “There is no question of shortage,” she said. “Everyone knows how they treat their staff. Why will anyone go there again?”