On August 7th, 2020, about six lakh ASHA workers went on a two-day strike. This strike was called to demand a pay hike for their measly payments even during the time of the pandemic. ASHA workers also demanded better protective equipment and gears for their protection against the deadly virus. Consequently, on August 17th, the ASHA Workers Union extended their strike after a failed negotiation with the government. Their strike now extended up to the 21st of August, 2020. According to The Tribune, the union president and general secretary (Paresh and Surekha), said that the government gave no assurances about implementing their demands.
The Work ASHAs Do
The Accredited Social Health Activists, better known as ASHAs have been frontline workers for decades. They had previously been monumental in helping India fight polio and deaths due to child birth. During the corona virus outbreak, ASHAs were working relentlessly to trace contact and contain the pandemic. India imposed a countrywide lockdown starting 24th March, 2020. However, this lockdown failed to contain the outburst and more than 1.9 million people were infected with the virus.
Fight for Better Pay
Healthcare workers have been working tirelessly to help Indian citizens fight the virus. Even then, the team of ASHA workers have faced harassment and underpayment despite being frontline workers. The group of Accredited Social Health Activists was created by the National Rural Health Mission in 2005. ASHAs are a group of workers who are all women. This was done to ensure better accessibility in rural homes where families felt comfortable with women workers. Hence, this also raises questions about the gendered differences in payment that occurs in areas of work.
ASHA workers are noted as volunteers and not workers. Hence, they cannot claim a minimum wage. Their work is extensive and consuming but they only receive an honorarium of only INR 2000 – 4000. Workers have also complained about not receiving the extra INR 2000 they were promised for their work during the pandemic. ASHAs have been working for ten to fourteen hours a day, as opposed to the measured two to three hours which was originally thought of. Nevertheless, their payment is still stingy.
Risk to their Safety
Since the corona virus outbreak about twenty ASHA workers have lost their lives fighting the pandemic. This has occurred due to the lack of personal protective equipment kits. Though some were offered masks and gloves, they still lacked full gears for their protection. The Print reported the death of Saira Anwar Sheikh in an article. They spoke to her husband Anwar Sheikh Ahmad who said “She was the literate one among the two of us. She gave 11 years of her life to this work and there’s been no help from the government.” Saira left behind her husband and four children. Here too, we see how the pandemic has caused a gap in protection and work done between women and men frontline workers.
Harassment Faced by ASHA workers
Another important issue that has forced ASHA workers to go on strike is the harassment they faced while doing their jobs. Many people cursed, abused and screamed at them for asking questions pertaining to their home address. This is done because people are weary of being spoken about and ostracized in their neighbourhoods. Further, many family members of deceased ASHA workers have been unable to claim insurances promised by the government.
The mistreatment of ASHA workers also serves as a reminder about how citizens often take healthcare and frontline workers for granted. With a meagre pay and lack of protective equipment ASHA workers fought relentlessly for five months. Additionally, the lack of acknowledgment also serves as a reminder that since ASHA workers are women, their work is seen as natural act of care giving. This work is often unnoticed even within households. Hence, their brave and unstoppable bearing has gone without proper acknowledgment even in the public sphere.