On 10 November 2020, Rupali Khekan filed a case against the recruiting company Career Zone in the labour court of Pune. For months, Khekan had been struggling to get the money owed to her for work as a lab technician at the COVID-19 ward of Sassoon Hospital. Career Zone hired her for the position and abruptly fired her after three months. Khekan claimed she had not been fully paid for that period. She told me that she had already pleaded with Bhagyeshree Thakur, the head of Career Zone, and complained to the dean of Sassoon Hospital. When nothing seemed to work, she approached the courts. “Why was I having to grovel for my own money?” she asked. “I felt like a beggar.”
Khekan, who is 26 years old, started working at Sassoon Hospital in August 2020. Sassoon Hospital is one of the largest government hospitals in Pune with a capacity of 1,200 beds. It is attached to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Medical College and a nurses’ training school. The college has a teaching staff of more than 260 doctors, and 200 MBBS and 144 postgraduate students graduating from the college each year. Amid rising COVID-19 cases in April 2020, the hospital launched a dedicated 1,000-bed COVID-19 facility in a newly-constructed building. The hospital hired Career Zone, the recruiting company Thakur founded in 2008, to fulfill staff requirements of Sassoon’s new COVID-19 facility. According to the Career Zone’s website, it specialises in “recruitment consultancy and office placement,” and caters to close to seventy clients, including companies like Infosys, Capgemini and Tech Mahindra. Career Zone hired ancillary staff for Sassoon hospital during the first wave of the pandemic. Khekan was one among hundreds of lab technicians, nurses and social workers hired on six-month contracts.
Khekan was assigned to the hospital’s COVID-19 ward, where she collected blood samples. She was promised a salary of Rs 25,000 per month. But she was paid only Rs 15,000 in August and again in September. At 10 pm on 31 October—a Saturday—Khekan got a phone call from Career Zone’s offices asking her not to come to work from the next day. “How could they just remove us like this in the middle of the night?” she asked. “No notice period, nothing.”
On the following Monday, 25 lab technicians, all of whose contracts had been terminated along with Khekan, forced their way into the room that served as Thakur’s temporary office inside Sassoon Hospital, demanding that they be paid the full amount they were owed. In addition to not having been fully remunerated for August and September, they had not been paid at all for October. According to Khekan, Thakur was noncommittal. “She kept saying that Sassoon Hospital had not filed our work order yet, that she had not got payment from the hospital yet,” she said. The technicians then spoke to Murlidhar Tambe, the dean of Sassoon Hospital, who assured them that the hospital had paid Career Zone and he did not know why Thakur had not paid the contract workers. “He said, ‘It’s not my responsibility. Talk to your contractor,’” Khekan said.
Stuck between the hospital and the recruitment company, Khekan and three other technicians filed a case against Career Zone in the labour court. In January 2021, the court ordered a settlement in which Thakur agreed to pay Khekan the money she was owed. Khekan received her salary for August and September 2020 soon after the settlement in January and her salary for October 2020 in April.