He started doing this job when he was 18. At 52, P B Asharaf is still working as a headload worker, at the same Central Market in Kochi. He never thought of doing something else other than working as a porter, and it’s clear why.
“There are people willing to pay Rs 4 lakh to 5 lakh to get the job of a headload worker. But our market has strictly put a ceiling at 60. We can’t transfer our jobs. If a father is indisposed, his son or son-in-law could take that job. Otherwise, the CITU (the CPM’s labour union) decides who should be appointed headload worker,” says Asharaf.
That also explains Kerala’s unique and enduring practice of ‘nooku kooli’. Last week, CITU leader B Murali was arrested in Thiruvananthapuram for demanding nooku kooli from a woman IAS officer for unloading home appliances. Nooku kooli is the amount collected by headload workers as charge to look on even if the unloading work is being done by cranes or machines. Even if a house owner unloads his own luggage from a truck, the workers demand nooku kooli. Police registered a case against four other CITU-affiliated headload workers.
In Kerala, headload workers are known to demand exorbitant wages for loading and unloading. They first organised themselves into groups at bus stands in the late ’60s, and later spread to villages. As mechanisation reduced work even as the number of workers grew, the practice of nooku kooli started.
In 2002, the Kerala government brought in the Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of Wages and Restriction of Unlawful Practices) Act, giving the public the freedom to employ workers of their choice for domestic or non-domestic works. Thiruvananthapuram has actually been declared nooku kooli free, though the IAS officer’s example shows the practice continues, even if it’s now rarer.
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Asharaf insists there is no practice of nooku kooli at the Kochi Central Market. However, he admits it exists, demanded when workers “don’t have enough opportunities”. “The situation for nooku kooli emerges when a dozen go for a job that can be done by three or four persons.”
At the Kochi market, he is one of 60 who unload vegetables from trucks and carry these to yards of wholesale merchants. Behind any given truck, there are around two dozen able-bodied men in blue shirts awaiting their turn. An average 35 truckloads of vegetables arrive at the market daily, from places like Pune and Bangalore.
While these 60 workers are engaged only in unloading from heavy commercial vehicles, another 150 are assigned to load goods onto mini-trucks of retailers who drive to the market from across the region.
Asharaf’s group of 60 works in three shifts. “Trucks start coming to the market late in the night. By early morning, the narrow market road has a long line of trucks waiting to offload their cargo,” he says. He is at the job normally by 6 am. The market is 6 km from his house in Thammanam. His first stop is the local headload workers’ office, where he has to mark his attendance. The register is often cross-checked by officials of the Kerala Headload Workers’ Welfare Board.
“At a time, 20 to 25 persons are on duty from the 60. Two persons climb onto trucks to help put sacks or craters on the heads of others,” Asharaf says. He explains that everyone has to put in an equal amount of work, “although we take a lenient approach towards those who cannot shoulder much luggage due to health problems”.
Asharaf’s 6 am duty is the second shift of the day. The first batch of 20 comes in at 3 am and works till 9 am. Two batches are at the market for the 6 am shift. However, while one batch finishes its assignment by 2 pm, another works until 5 pm. That is the practice for six days a week. There are team leaders for every batch.
“During the rainy season, the flow of vehicles is limited as vegetables are in short supply. We have 25 vehicles on an average those days,” Asharaf says. The workers are not paid everyday or by the merchants. Instead, they pay wages into the account of the Kerala Headload Workers’ Welfare Board. The workers are paid a salary at the end of the month.
Asharaf says he makes Rs 22,000 a month on an average if he works 26 days. “Salary is calculated based on the number of days spent working at the market. Apart from the monthly salary, we have ESI (employees’ state insurance), provident fund and festival allowances.”
There is a fixed rate for unloading, depending on the type of cargo. “While unloading an onion bag fetches Rs 15, a tomato crate is unloaded for Rs 5,” says Asharaf.
A high school dropout, he joined the market through CITU. “Even in those days, the job of a headload worker was in demand. At the time, we were paid daily by merchants. Later, the government streamlined this area with the introduction of the welfare board,” he says.
Asharaf notes that the money has been enough for him to bring up his two children. “My son Thanzeer is studying a computer degree course. He wants to work in the IT sector. The income from the market helped me get my daughter Thazleen married after her graduation.”
While the Kochi Central Market has been shrinking in terms of volume of business over the years as new markets have come up outside the city, headload workers have not been hit so far, with salaries still on the rise. But even Asharaf doesn’t expect that to continue. Like his children, those of other headload workers at the market too are either studying engineering or doing other professional courses. “The children do not want to pursue this job although it is financially rewarding. This job demands physical strain,” he shrugs. And that way could go nooku kooli too.