Nokku kooli: Why Kerala govt should end the trade union hooliganism that threatens to stall investments
Nokku kooli is the charge extracted by head load workers in Kerala if they are not given unloading work. Despite Pinarayi Vijayan speaking against the practice earlier, the 'extortion' has become rampant after he assumed power
The acute shortage of labourers plaguing the south Indian state of Kerala is attributed to people’s aversion to manual work, but the loading and unloading sector in the state is an exception. Ironically, it has now a glut of blue collar workers.
The paradox is not baffling to the people, who have had a taste of head load workers at least once in their life. Almost everybody, poor and rich, dreads this class as they consider all loading, unloading anywhere in the state as their sole prerogative.
These workers, who belong to trade unions affiliated to political parties, are present in every nook and corner of the state. The unions post “lookouts” at every industrial and residential area during day and night. Once they spot a vehicle carrying goods, quickly the news is conveyed to all the members of the union available in the area.
The workers descend en masse to the place where goods are to be loaded or unloaded and stake claim for the work. They demand exorbitant wages for carrying the load. If the owner of the good is not willing to pay the same, they allow him to do the loading or unloading himself or engage workers of his choice to do the same provided he pays the head load worker his due.
This is called wage for watching the work or nokku kooli in Malayalam. Like the work, this wage has also turned as a head load worker’s right over the years. People seldom resist the nokku kooli because the workers have the tacit support of political parties. The workers often threaten and intimidate owner/ contractor for extorting these illegal charges.
Even though the high court had termed the practice as hooliganism and directed the police to curb it, the police seldom intervenes whenever a dispute arises. Even when they intervene they try to go for an amicable settlement, which mostly weighs in favour of the head load workers.
The high court has termed the head load workers as a belligerent and quarrelsome group that always charge exorbitant wages even for carrying petty loads. In a 2001 judgment, the court observed that the head load work had become a lucrative job, prompting many to attempt to enter the field under the leadership of rival unions.
When Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who had spoken against the practice while he headed the party in 2008, batted for private investments after he assumed office in May 2016, the investors had hoped that he may tame the militant labourers.
Though Pinarayi has been able to overcome the resistance from conservatives in his Communist Party of India (Marxist) to his pro-capital development agenda, which was considered as a deviation from the core communist ideology, he has found the militant labourers a hard nut to crack.
In fact, the nooku kooli menace has become widespread after he took over the reins of the state. A quarry that supplied materials for several infrastructure projects, including Kochi Metro, was shut down over a month after he assumed power due to the nokku kooli issue.
The quarry did not require the service of head load workers since loading there was carried out through mechanical devices. Still the quarry owner agreed to pay Rs 400 for each lorry load when a group of workers belonging to trade unions affiliated to the CPI(M), Congress and BJP staked claim for the work. When the workers demanded Rs 500 per load, the quarry owner closed down the unit and took the issue to the high court.
State-run Kerala State Medical Service Corporation had to pay Rs 4,000 for unloading a diesel generator using a crane in February this year. This week, head load workers belonging to Communist Party of India (CPI) forced a contractor to stop the national highway maintenance work at Alappuzha, the cradle of communist movement in the state, after he refused to pay nokku kooli.
The head load workers do not spare even common man. Three members of a family were beaten up again at Alappuzha a couple of days ago for not heeding their demand for nokku kooli in connection with the unloading of household goods while shifting their house.
Investors view nokku kooli as a euphemism for extortion by organised labour unions and say it will undermine the government’s efforts to attract investment into the state. Kochouseph Chittilapally, head of V-Guard Group of Industry, who tasted the muscle power of the head load workers, said that the militant labour practice was thriving in the state with the patronage of political parties.
The industrialist, who has set up a host of industrial units in the state because of his love for his home state, told the Firstpost that the silence maintained by chief minister over the recent incidents of nokku kooli showed his hypocrisy. “If he means what he said, he should urgently call an all-party meeting and go for a legislation to end the practice as directed by the high court,” he added.
Neither the police machinery nor the political leadership came to the rescue of the group, when the head load workers affiliated to the pro-CPM Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) prevented the employees of group firm, V-Star, from unloading goods in one of his depots at Kochi in 2011.
The hapless industrialist had to turn to the court to protect his right to engage workers of his choice without being inhibited by any claims from the “sons of the soil”. The court had ordered police to provide protection to 11 V-Star employees, who possessed legally valid labour cards, to do their work.
Kochouseph, who had threatened to shift his units to the neighbouring states, said no new investors would come to Kerala if the labour is not friendly. “Utter lawlessness was prevailing in the loading and unloading sector. There is no check on new entrants,” he said.
CITU state vice-president and Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma said the continuation of the nokku kooli practice was a shame for a state like Kerala where people are highly conscious about their rights. She said that her organisation was against the practice and would take strict action to curb the practice.
She also urged unions affiliated to other parties to take a similar stand. “The union workers have been taking nokku kooli as if it is their birth right. This is wrong and it cannot be allowed in a democratic set up. The unions should remove such members,” she said.
However, senior CPI leaders have justified the practice. Party state secretary Kanam Rajendran said the issue was complex. It should be seen as a compensation for employment loss, he added.
Economists say that job loss cannot be a cause for worry since several sectors in the state were facing acute shortage of workers. They say that the issue can easily be solved by diverting the head load workers to agriculture and construction sectors that now depend heavily on workers from other states.
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