It was a bolt out of the blue for Malarvizhi (name changed), a nurse working at a government facility in north Tamil Nadu, when she was told the Health Department would recover the salary paid during her maternity leave. The contractual nurse is upset at losing out on the hard-won right of paid maternity leave.
For nurses like her, who were recruited through the Medical Services Recruitment Board (MRB) and working on contract, it is a struggle for more than regularisation of service. A protest in 2021 fetched the contract nurses maternity leave with salary benefits, a right that has now got diluted.
As International Nurses Day was observed on Friday, a number of nurses, holding their toddlers, staged a protest in Chennai, demanding their rights.
“We fought for paid maternity leave and obtained it in 2021. Prior to that, we had nurses returning to work in a few months — two months after undergoing a Caesarean section. But this was not implemented in all districts. In November 2022, the Health Department issued a circular that the State government could not pay maternity leave benefits to contract nurses working on a consolidated pay under the National Health Mission (NHM),” said a nurse, who joined service in 2015.
The NHM-Tamil Nadu, on May 2 this year, said these instructions were applicable to MRB-appointed contract staff nurses, including those placed on a contract basis/outsourced under various schemes of the NHM. All heads of departments were requested to recover the leave salary amount paid during maternity leave availed by the MRB-appointed contract staff nurses.
“We were recruited by the State government through the MRB. They posted many of us to work in NHM schemes, including those relating to reproductive and child health and non-communicable diseases, and now, they are denying us such benefits,” a nurse said.
During pregnancy, many of them work till the expected date of delivery, another nurse said, adding, “We get no exemption from night shifts or 24-hour duty. In fact, we accompany pregnant women in ambulances while they are transferred from a primary health centre to a tertiary care centre.”
“I worked till three days of delivery, while I know of nurses who have gone into labour while on duty. The workload and the working conditions are stressful. Now, the decision to recover the salary is causing more stress,” a nurse said.
She added that very often, they worked for 12-14 hours a day. From outpatient service to attending to emergencies and deliveries, nurses also disburse medications at the pharmacy. “We do not just attend to patients but also do the administrative work of data entry,” she added.
A group of nurses said they were not entitled to medical leave, and if they needed leave for emergencies, loss of pay was only the option. “We have our weekly off and a day’s leave per month. There are no other benefits,” a nurse said. Some of them take their young children to night shift, while some have started their babies on solid food as they could not continue breastfeeding.
Among the other demands, the nurses want maternity leave benefits, security at the primary health centres and medical leave.
An official of the Health Department said contract nurses were entitled to the same benefits as other employees recruited on contract by the government. The official did not deny that the maternity benefits were halted for the nurses.