National Sections of the L5I:

Pakistan: Courageous sit ins by young nurses win regularisation

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In March, nurses employed on a day to day, “ad hoc” basis, held protests at the sacking of 2,800 nurses, demanding their reinstatement, an end to insecure employment and for permanent jobs. They demanded an end to the arbitrary system of hiring and firing and improvements in their service structure and pay.

Many of these nurses were first employed during the outbreak of Dengue Fever in 2011 and played a vital role in containing the outbreak, saving many patients' lives. Others have been working for up to six years. However, what they all share in common is that for this entire period, they have been without any regular employment, working on an “ad hoc”, on demand, basis.

Against this, they staged a sit-in on the road in front of the Director General of Health's office in Lahore. After protesting for 4 days, on Friday, March 14, 2014, the protest moved to the Mall, outside the Punjab Assembly building. There, the Punjab Police baton-charged the demonstration in an attempt to disperse the young nurses. This attack left many seriously injured and needing hospital treatment, two nurses were particularly seriously injured, one of whom was seven months pregnant.

The sacking of 2,800 nurses comes at a time when there is actually a severe shortage of nursing staff in the Punjab. Only 15,000 nurses are employed in government run hospitals. The new government has attacked the nurses as a direct result of the demands of the IMF and World Bank. The picture is clear. The government is prepared to cut public health services even more to meet the conditions of the financial institutions. It is planning further cuts to the health budgets.

Cynically, the continued firing of nurses and destruction of hospital services is portrayed as a step towards “development”, directing funds from public services to private investors. They have billions of rupees available for the developers of the metro bus project to control the transport system and other projects to show their commitment to “development”. But there is nothing for the working class people; as everyone knows, the famine in Sindh province killed hundreds of children, women and old men.

The sheer brutality of the baton charge, however, shocked the whole working class and trade union movement. Nurses across Punjab stopped working and staged demos and sit ins and the movement rapidly spread across the whole of Pakistan. The para medical staff also announced that they would strike and many of them joined the protest to protect the nurses from police harassment. Young doctors, railway workers, and workers from the Pakistan Telecommunication Company and postal workers all showed their solidarity.

The nurses' courageous stand and determination to fight, however, succeeded in the end. They kept united despite the government's severe harassment and forced the authorities to open negotiations till they met victory on March 18. The government agreed on three year contracts with an increase of 4,000 rupees in their salary and promised that at the end of the three years their posts would be made permanent without the requirement for examinations under the Punjab Public Service Commission.

This is not only a great victory in itself but also because, initially, the nurses were betrayed by their previous leadership. However, while maintaining the protest, they elected a new leadership that was answerable to the sit in. This is a remarkable demonstration of the effectiveness of rank and file control of leadership and should give courage to the working class in many sectors.

Many working class activists are now asking themselves, if the nurses could win these important gains, why couldn’t they win as well? The nurses showed the real strength of women and the path for the new working class movement in Pakistan. The many lessons learned in this struggle must now be generalised by the entire working class movement.