Kashmir: Health workers gear-up for elections after seven years!

"Workers Unity" candidates stand for a fighting, democratic union

Health workers in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) – numbering nearly 10,000 out of 80,000 public sector workers – are organised by the AJK Paramedical Staff Association.

picture: Socialist Liberation, paper of cwi supporters in Kashmir

They include dispensers, health technicians, medical assistants, ward-boys, cleaners, catering staff, and Lady Health Visitors (mostly women workers) etc. After more than seven years, health workers in one particular district Kotli, following a bitter struggle with the present (appointed) right-wing leadership of PSA, have succeeded in getting agreement from the union leadership to hold elections for the district and sub-division level of the union on 28 September 2004.

The present district leadership of the PSA has failed miserably to defend the rights of their members. Workers in the health department continue to face multiple problems, from huge accommodation probelms, understaffing, all new recruitment on a contract basis, long hours over and above the eight-hour shift, and an anti-worker law ie the Special Powers Act.

For the first time since the 1994 defeat of the PSA strike an informal meeting of nearly 100 workers decided to hold elections. A 15-member committee was formed taking three members each from all sub-divisions. A district elections commission was also formed with the approval of the committee.

There are thousands of young health workers employed in the private sector without any rights, and are paid by hospital bosses below the so-called minimum wage of Rs:2,500 a month (£25 a month) on a contract basis, with no pension rights etc. At the same time these workers have not been organised into trade unions. In Kotli, where there are around 500 private sector health workers, PSA members have made contact with them for future PSA membership.

Rotten leadership

Many rank and file members have expressed sharp criticism of PSA leadership, for not holding elections which are due every two years, hiding the constitution of PSA from the members, and generally colluding with hospital management against the interests of the membership.

After the announcement of the election schedule, two panels have come forward; "Workers Unity" panel (election symbol = red rose) and a right-wing panel led by the previous leadership (election symbol = moon).

The Workers’ Unity panel comprises of majority of health workers who have been disgusted with the previous leadership and have struggled to get re-organised and have campaigned for democratic elections.

On Monday 13 September, the last day of submitting of the nomination papers, nearly two hundred Workers’ Unity panel members and their supporters marched through the town and went to the election commissioner at the District Health Office.

Talking to Socialist Liberation (paper of CWI supporters, Kashmir), a cleaner working in the DHQ hospital (150 beds) which caters for a population in the local district of over 600,000, said: "We have been employed in the hospital for 17 years and every time our trade union leaders have betrayed us. Now we are contesting this election to struggle for our rights".

The total failure of the DHQ hospital management over the years has led to an acute crisis. There is no hospital intercom let alone proper telephone exchange, and air conditioners in different wards have either been stolen or used by senior hospital management. Appalling conditions exist in the hospital, particularly in the family ward.

Workers in health and other public sector departments continue to face anti-working class policies of the present ruling right-wing government led by the Muslim Conference, who are a rubber stamp for general Musharraf’s regime.

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September 2004