From Tuesday, Labour Day, a notorious practice in Kerala called nokku kooli — or gawking charges, essentially payment for doing nothing — is set to cease to exist. Following consultations among parties and trade unions and a decision taken last month, the state labour department issued an order Monday to end the practice.
The practice has been rampant for three decades among headload workers, defined in the Kerala Headload Workers Act as “a person engaged or employed directly or through a contractor in or for an establishment, whether for wages or not, for loading or unloading or carrying on head or person or in a trolley any article or articles in or from or to a vehicle or any place in such establishment, and includes any person not employed by any employer or contractor but engaged in the loading or unloading or carrying on head or person or in a trolley any article or articles for wages, but does not include a person engaged by an individual for domestic purposes”.
Headload workers can collect nokku kooli in two ways. First, when a person loads or unloads articles oneself, or deploys one’s own workers to do so, registered headload workers demand nokku kooli. Otherwise, headload workers extort a sum from construction or other sites where machines move heavy objects. They would obstruct such work on grounds of being denied work.
In recent years, the growth of infrastructure and realty projects has allowed headload workers to earn huge amounts as nokku kooli. On the flip side, the decline of some markets and changes in the way products are packaged have led to dwindling of work for headload workers. At present, Kerala has about 2 lakh headload workers, with 70% of them affiliated to CPM-led CITU.
The Kerala Headload Workers Act, 1978, was enacted to regulate their employment and provide for their welfare and settlement of disputes. Later, the Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of Wages and Restriction of Unlawful Practices) Act was enacted in 2002. It gives employers the right to carry out loading and unloading work for non-domestic purposes either themselves or by employing workers of their choice at specified sites. Yet extortion in the name of nokku kooli continued, mostly by workers affiliated to CITU and Congress-led INTUC.
In recent years, several court orders have sought to ban the practice. In December 2016, Kerala High Court had observed, “It is also a matter of experience in the High Court that hundreds of writ petitions are being filed every year complaining of obstruction to loading and unloading activities as well as manhandling of employers on the ground that the employers were not willing to pay nokku kooli.’’
The decision to end the practice, which stemmed from an all-party meeting, followed the suicide of a Kerala resident who had returned from the Gulf. He wanted to build an automobile workshop in Kollam but found himself under pressure to bribe a trade union.
CITU state president Anathalavattam Anandan said trade unions have conveyed to workers that they should not collect exorbitant wages or levy charges for work done by machines. “This time, we expect nokku kooli will be eradicated. This is the first time that political parties and their trade unions have come forward to support the government initiative to end the practice.’’
Anandan said the current labour scenario has led to headload workers extorting money. “Mechanisation has taken away a large volume of work. They don’t have any alternative avenues for earning,” Anandan said.