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.
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 continued…