Waiting in hope

Even after giving their services free during the worst years of the war, Eastern Province
volunteer health workers have been refused permanent jobs. Nadia Fazlulhaq reports

Some 300 volunteer sanitary labourers who have given up to 15 years of free service in the Eastern Province say they have been unfairly denied the opportunity to get permanent employment and a regular salary. Although they have applied for permanent jobs, they say their applications have been rejected and the jobs given to “outsiders” through political influence.

The labourers say they worked through the worst years of the conflict in the North and East without receiving a cent in remuneration. They say they hope they will be absorbed into the permanent workforce so they can start receiving a regular salary.

Eastern Province health workers asking for permanent jobs stage a protest.

In 2008, the Department of Management Services announced it would recruit 300 volunteers from the East and North. The recruitments were to be done at the request of Eastern Province Governor, Rear-Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema.

In a letter dated July 22, 2009, the Department of Management Services, which comes under the Ministry of Finance and Planning, gave permission for the recruitment of 240 sanitary labourers from the Eastern Province and 60 from the Northern Province.

This year, on February 17, some 250 volunteer sanitary labourers and 141 non-volunteers were interviewed for government jobs as health workers. The non-volunteers were recommended in a list supplied by the Eastern Province board of ministers. Of the 250 volunteer sanitary labourers interviewed, 99 were recruited, while all 141 non-volunteers, or “outsiders”, were given appointments.

“Certain politicians tried to put in people of their choice,” claimed Eastern Province opposition councillor A. Sasitharan. “This is a violation of correct procedure. The 141 non-volunteer applicants did not have to go through the same procedure. Volunteers who have been working free for 10 years or more were not given appointments.”

Mr. Sasitharan said the majority of the outsiders had been recommended by the Minister of Health and the balance by the Chief Minister.

“The Chief Minister submitted 32 names. The Secretary to the Ministry was removed from her post because she refused to sign the appointments,” he said.

Seven months have passed, but the sanitary labourers still have no idea whether they will get a permanent job or not, he added.

According to Mr. Sasitharan, the Eastern Province Governor had stated in a letter dated 05/03/2009 that he had heard that irregularities were taking place in the appointment of sanitary labourers to the Eastern Province health services. The letter said the present recruitment procedure for non-volunteer health workers was not transparent and that the procedure was therefore questionable. The governor also recommended that the present recruitment procedure be suspended.

Eastern Provincial Council member Zavahir Sally said it was unfair to give outsiders preference over volunteer health workers who had a long service record and who had worked without a salary for years. He said people from his area who had put in more than 12 years’ volunteer service had also had their applications rejected.

Meanwhile, Minister of Health, Sports and IT Education, M. L. M. Hisbullah, said political influence had played no part in the new appointments, which were endorsed by the Eastern Provincial Council board of ministers. He said the criteria for recruitment were qualifications, ethnic ratio and gender.

“All 141 persons appointed are males, because there is a demand for male workers in hospitals,” the minister said. “The District Medical Officers [DMOs] and hospitals are looking for male labourers.”
The minister said the volunteers who had sent in applications included 292 females and only eight males.

“The hospitals have asked for male labourers who can work on the night shift. That was one of the factors for consideration,” the minister told the Sunday Times. “The governor also made it clear there should be an ethnic ratio, and that Sinhalese and Muslims too should be recruited. In Batticaloa, there were 150 Tamil volunteers, representing more than 85 percent of the total number of applicants,” he said.

The minister said recruitment had been suspended by Provincial Councils since February this year because of financial constraints. “Most of the time the volunteers don’t turn up for work, and we have an urgent need for sanitary labourers.”

According to U. L. A. Aziz, Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Eastern Province, the new appointments would be confirmed once the Provincial Public Services Commission had reviewed them.

“According to the 06/2006 Public Administration circular, the minimum qualification should be two passes in one sitting at the GCE Ordinary Level. The volunteers have only a Grade 8 pass. The Provincial Public Services Commission has to decide on the criteria and inform the ministry,” he said.
Mr. Aziz said the board of ministers could speak to the Department of Management Services and make the necessary arrangements to employ the volunteers. “Arrangements can be made to recruit half of the volunteers, and the balance half in the second term. Presently, no recruitments are being made,” he said.

Provincial Public Services Commission secretary K. Udage told the Sunday Times the commission has asked the Ministry of Health to hold another interview for the 141 appointees to ascertain their qualifications. However, Provincial Director of Health, Dr. M. Devarajah, said no instructions had yet been received about a second interview.

As officials attempt to sort out matters, the volunteer workers wait in hope. T. Lilimalar, 29 years, has been working as a volunteer since the age of 19. “They called me for an interview and then found that my name was not on the list,” she said. “I went with some other volunteers to meet the Chief Minister and the Health Minister, but we have not been given job placements.”

She said she worked during the conflict in the North and East and underwent great hardship. She hoped to continue to do the same work, but as a paid employee.

M. Thilakawathie, 34, has been a sanitary labourer for 13 years. “When we discovered our names were not on the list, we sent out many letters. I continue to work at a Health Ministry office in the hope I’ll get a permanent job,” she said.

According to Saman Ratnapriya, president of the Health Services Trade Union Alliance, hundreds volunteered their services during the war.

“While the war was going on these volunteers worked tirelessly to provide additional health services, especially when injured internally displaced persons were brought to hospitals,” he said. “When the Red Cross was handing over patients, the volunteers did a lot to bring the patients to the hospitals and take care of them.

“We have asked the provincial health authorities to absorb the volunteers into the permanent staff, as they have made a big contribution. We will keep fighting for their rights. They have done a lot to treat patients, without receiving a cent in return,” he said.

Mr. Ratnapriya said those who had given years of free service to the community deserved ap-preciation.

No confidence in Hisbullah

A no-confidence motion against Eastern Province Health Minister, M. L. M. Hisbullah, will be debated when the Eastern Provincial Council meets on September 29.

The motion was tabled last Monday by UNP Councillor A. Sasitharan and signed by opposition councillors Basheer Cegu Dawood and Arunachalam Parasuraman.

“Following a series of allegations levelled against Minister Hisbullah, the opposition councillors, especially the UNP councillors and some members of the ruling party, wish to bring a no-confidence motion against Mr. Hisbullah,” said UNP councillor A. Sasitharan.

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