Without the hospital cleaners, those at the top rung of society would be rendered helpless during the Covid-19 pandemic, says Mustafa K Anuar.
The Malaysian government recently sang the praises of frontline staff, particularly health workers, for their sacrifices and commitment towards preventing the escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic, a feat that gained world recognition.
They were rightly called the unsung heroes in acknowledgment of the vital collective role these workers, who are often hidden from public glare, play in the endeavour to arrest the spread of the deadly virus.
But such a chorus of praise sounded somewhat hollow on 2 June, when three officials of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services and two members of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) staged a peaceful industrial strike in front of the Raja Permaisuri Bainun Hospital in Ipoh to express their dissatisfaction over their alleged mistreatment by their employer.
The union officials, who were hospital cleaners, and the PSM members were eventually arrested for having exercised their workers’ right to strike even while they reportedly adhered to the standard operating procedures of the movement control order.
The strike, which is normally a last resort, was mounted after all other efforts to negotiate with the employer or register their grievances with the Labour Department had fallen on deaf ears.
Their allegations are serious and worthy of investigation by the authorities as they relate to the welfare of vital health workers: union members had been subjected to several union-busting tactics to weaken and intimidate these hospital workers, including by arbitrarily changing their work hours and shifts without prior consent, forcing them to work longer hours without overtime pay, and transferring them to distant hospitals.
The workers also complained, among others, of poor wages without any annual increment.
What’s equally disturbing, the workers alleged they were not provided with adequate personal protective equipment when cleaning hospital wards, especially Covid-19 patient wards, and utensils.
At the risk of exposing themselves to infection, these cleaners nonetheless work to ensure a clean and sterile environment in hospitals for the safety of patients, health workers and visitors.
We should be mindful that these workers have families, too. An infection may not only adversely affect the health and livelihood of the workers but also the economic security and future of their families.
Director general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah pointed out that his ministry would not intervene as this is an issue between the workers and their employer, but has advised the company to take “drastic action” to resolve the matter to prevent any disruption of services.
Disruption of services is certainly to be avoided at a time when hospitals are urgently needed to cater to the needs of coronavirus patients. Therefore, these workers’ issues must be fully resolved as soon as possible.
The sweat of these foot soldiers should not be taken for granted, especially when they constitute an important link in the chain of roles required to run a hospital efficiently and effectively.
The work of the hospital cleaners may be viewed by some as menial, but it is as vital as that of, say, garbage collectors, grass cutters, gardeners and delivery workers.
In fact, the current pandemic tells us that their work is indeed important, without which even those at the top rung of society would be rendered helpless.