The Lede
‘Watch’ And Get Paid – The Left Ends Kerala’s Disastrous Labour Union Practice

‘Watch’ And Get Paid – The Left Ends Kerala’s Disastrous Labour Union Practice

Rejimon Kuttappan

Rejimon Kuttappan

‘Nokku Kooli’ has for decades been an accepted labour practice that has for long affected the state’s Ease of Doing Business image

On May 1 this year, when workers worldwide observe Labour Day to commemorate the 1886 mass labour walkout in Chicago demanding eight-hour working days, headload workers in Kerala will ‘lose’ their most-controversial ‘right’.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, at present the sole Communist Chief Minister in India, who likes to present himself as a ‘doer leader’, has taken the bold step to remove the decades old and widely-criticised ‘Nokku Kooli’ system that has prevented industry and businesses from flourishing in the state..

Nokku Kooli’ is a practice followed by unionists in Kerala, where the owner can load or unload the goods himself, but money has to be paid to the trade unions for ‘watching’ (therefore, literally ‘Nokku’) the movement of goods.

As the Leftist CM sees it, ‘Nokku Kooli’ is affecting the state’s status of being investor-friendly and thanks to this, its ‘ease of doing business’ is in the negative. In a meeting held on Thursday, unionists have agreed to the CM’s proposal to put an end to the widely-criticised practice.

In a post on his official Facebook page, the CM wrote that unionists are still following the practice in Kerala, which is affecting state’s business-friendly image.

The practice had taken such deep root in the labour mindset, that by 2014 end, there were instances of unionists demanding Rs25 as ‘Nokku Kooli’ from customers who had purchased more than Rs250.worth of fish at a Kerala harbour.

And in 2013, Cochin University in Kerala had to shell out thousands as ‘Nokku Kooli’ to unload books.

Anathalavattom Anandan, the national Vice President of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), while agreeing that ‘Nokku Kooli’ has to be removed, told The Lede that the government and society should think of how jobs can be created for the survival of headloaders.

“In 2008, we had come to a decision that ‘Nokku Kooli’ is an embarrassing practice,” the trade unionist said, adding that ‘Nokku Kooli’ came into practice as compensation paid to workers who were losing jobs due to mechanisation and automation of industrial activities.

“We have never encouraged it. But the unskilled headloaders were left with no option other than resorting to accepting ‘Nokku Kooli’ for survival,” the trade unionist said.

Meanwhile, Varkala Kahar, a Member of the Legislative Assembly representing the Varkala constituency from the Indian National Congress, told The Lede that they have been against this exploitative practice since 1992.

“We never agreed for ‘Nokku Kooli’. It has ruined our state’s ‘investment-friendly’ image. Unfortunately, most often than not, it was the Leftist unions who resorted to ‘Nokku Kooli’,” said the MLA, who also heads the Congress party’s State Head Loaders’ Federation.

However, Keralites say that ‘Nokku Kooli’ can only be seen as an organised form of extortion by the headload workers in Kerala, irrespective of their party or union affiliation.

“It is a part of the trade union militancy practised only in Kerala. The fact that a person living here does not have the freedom to engage a headload worker of his choice is ridiculous,” Anil Philip, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city, told The Lede. He added that in the event of you hiring someone to do a job, the union headloader had to be nevertheless paid to allow the hired person to work! It was a shock to Anil when he moved to Kerala 11 years ago, having grown up outside the state.

“The day our household items reached here, the truck was held to ransom by the headload workers in our area. We had to shell out a good amount to unload our own things. I can tell you several incidents when I had to pay ‘Nokku Kooli’, like for loading coconut saplings into my car, or for unloading some garden tiles at my house,” he said.

Even though the previous Congress-led state government had taken some steps to eradicate ‘Nokku Kooli’, nobody has been able to rein-in the trade unions.

“The reality is that ‘Nokku Kooli’ has flourished in Kerala with the silent approval of the Left governments,” added Anil.

Meanwhile, Kerala’s Labour Commissioner, A Alexander, told The Lede that the government has already started making efforts to bring this decision into force.

“We have held official meetings with district collectors and police officials to remove ‘Nokku Kooli’. We are now taking forward the meetings to the district level trade unionists. We are confident that the CM’s decision will be implemented successfully,” the Labour Commissioner said.

Nokku Kooli’ has drastically affected Kerala’s different sectors, tarnishing the state’s Ease of Doing Business image (EoDB).

There have been many instances when headload workers have obstructed work, creating trouble for IT companies in Technopark, or had even troubled artists at art festivals like the Kochi Biennale.

Be it the airport construction, the Kochi Metro or the National Highway work, a majority of the projects in Kerala had to face this problem at some point or the other.

According to Kerala government’s official website, the state is in the 20th position in the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) ranking as assessed by the Government of India in 2016-17.

As part of improving the rankings, the government has also come out with an Ordinance in 2017.

According to an official at the central government’s Small Scale Industries department in Thrissur, Kerala, the CM’s move to remove ‘Nokku Kooli’ will help the state to get rid of its ‘bad image’.

“Investors are still wary of setting up business in Kerala. They are afraid of ‘militant trade unionists’. If a Leftist CM is taking the first step to do away the unlawful practice of ‘Nokku Kooli’, it will definitely help to gain investors’ confidence,” the official, who requested anonymity, said.