Kerala Nurses: Are they not modern Florence Nightingales?
“A nurse who is inspired by the legendary Florence Nightingale”, I always conclude my submissions with this when I represent a nurse.
Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday is an apt opportunity to debate about Kerala nurses and their struggle in the United Kingdom and beyond. A predominant south Indian nursing diaspora, especially from Kerala has perhaps had a direct influence from Florence Nightingale through the western missionaries living in India during the colonial era.
Florence Nightingale belonged to a wealthy family and her parents refused to allow her to become a nurse. Her family wanted her to find a respectable man to marry her. The South Indian concept of nursing was completely different. Unlike Florence Nightingale, the majority of South Indian families, despite being poor, had to raise considerable amounts of money to teach their children to become nurses. They saw it as a noble profession. In most of the cases, the family had to sacrifice a piece of land or take a loan from moneylenders to fund their children’s education.
When Florence Nightingale went to help our soldiers in the Crimean War, it was obvious that Nightingale and her fellow nurses had to overcome sociological and psychological barriers, certainly no language barriers. On the contrary, as these nursing students who, at a young age had to migrate to other states to study nursing, it was obvious that they had to face language barriers. And of course, the financial stress to pay regular fees in time to wealthy and ruthless elites, who owned nursing schools and their attitude always played a part.
Upon completion of their nursing studies, these poor nurses started to hunt for jobs, a job where they could repay the loan availed by their parents for their study. The catastrophe of a country like India, despite all political calamities, we managed to maintain high unemployment levels at all times. Interestingly enough, the so-called multi-speciality private health care sector, however special they are, there too, we managed to maintain the unemployment at its peak; something no nation can be best at.
The first attempt at migration is to move to Northern India. These poor women at incredibly young ages were migrating to another state with the heavy burden of their family’s debt on their shoulders. They would find a job where the employer paid them very little, perhaps on the edge of survival. The local language was also hurdle for them. Once they conquer the language, they might get high paid employment offers from other establishments. But these merciless and ruthless employers who always exploited them by employing them under dangerous working conditions, paying very less, would hold their certificates under a bonding scheme and prevent them from taking better employments. Bonding scheme is a ridiculous system where the employers would not release their certificates for a certain period but kept paying them considerably low. These poor nurses did not (and still do not) have any luxury of reporting it to anyone, other than to themselves. The so called left ‘trade unions’ turned their back on these poor nurses. Perhaps, these trade unions through their scientific learning saw these poor hard-working nurses as bourgeoisies and went after socialism or kept socialism up in the attic and preached the so-called ‘socialism’.
The second phase of migration was in search of employment abroad, where they could get decent employment, as they still carried the burden of the family on their shoulders. Some of these nurses fell into the traps of bogus recruiting agents. They mercilessly looted these poor nurses.
Overcoming all these exploitations, their lives abroad as a nurse was perhaps not far from Nightingale’s experience in the Crimean War. A completely different terrain with no support other than the colleagues within, different social situations, different cultures. In some states which are undemocratic, authoritarian, and exploitative, they got paid less with no or lack of labour law protections.
However, those who migrated to Britain are relatively better placed when it comes to employment rights and discrimination. The difference between the Lady with the Lamp to the modern nurses, especially Kerala nurses is that instead of a lamp in their hands, they have their children and family in hearts and hands. They have also proved that ‘being a wife and a mother would [not] be a hindrance to nursing’, contrary to what Nightingale believed.
Therefore, even when we are facing another war, a war against Covid-19, these nurses are fighting at the forefront without a lamp, but with their whole family in their hands and hearts. It is a long time due to appreciate their suffering too, to the best of our ability.
Kerala lacks a monumental statue of a nurse, a statue of a modern Florence Nightingale and one at the heart of the British Parliament, and regular clapping outside doors is not enough but the government should pay them what they deserve.
Nightingale remained as an inspirational figure who believed that the revelation of God was caring for the sick and elderly. And will remain an inspirational figure for future generations. And the struggle of these south Indian nurses will remain an inspiration too to the whole world.
This article has been written for British Herald by Baiju Thittala LLB (Hons), Grad. NALP. He is the Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, Councillor at the Cambridge City Council, Lead Councillor for Equality and the Vice-Chair, Licensing Committee, Cambridge