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Kerala wants to rein in violent trade unions & end ‘nokku kooli’, will it work?


In the recently concluded state conference of the party, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, had turned his ire on the trade unions for continuing the practice of ‘nokku-kooli’; now a legal amendment to check the practice is on the cards.
PTI Photo
More than four decades after the Kerala Headload Workers Act of 1978 was legislated, the CPI(M)-led Left government in the state, according to reports, is mulling yet another amendment of the Act that would make demands for gawking wages (nokku-kooli) a penalisable offence with a jail term of up to two years and a fine of Rs 2 lakh. But would an amendment really help bring about a change in the mindset of a section of workers who believe it is their unalienable right to extract gawking charges, when enterprises and individuals have the right to carry out loading and unloading work using their own employees? Academicians, entrepreneurs and policy experts TNM spoke to believe a change would still be possible with little more clarity in law and display of political will power on part of the ruling dispensation.

A blot on the state’s investor-friendly image
In the recently concluded state conference of the party in Kochi, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, while announcing the government’s intent to aggressively woo private investment, had turned his ire on the trade unions for continuing the practice of ‘nokku-kooli’, a euphemism for extorting money from businesses and private individuals if they recruit unregistered workers for loading and unloading jobs. On May 1, 2018, the LDF government had announced a ban on gawking charges but such incidents continued to make media headlines embarrassing the LDF government, which for the past years has been carefully cultivating an investment-friendly image.
In October, 2021, the Kerala High Court asked the state police chief to register cases of extortion against workers who demand gawking charges. The court also made an oral observation that the work was inhuman and that it should be abolished. “Headload workers should be rehabilitated. They should be given training to use machines that are made for the purpose of loading and unloading goods. It is shocking to see the amount of effort they put into their work. Their health and quality of life are terrible after they are 50-60 years old,” the judge said. In February this year the Kerala high court declared gawking charges patently illegal and called for reforming the law.
In February, an incident in Mathamangalam in Kannur, a CPI(M) stronghold, where a hardware shop owner had to close his shop for several weeks after headload workers demanded that he stop using their own employees for loading and unloading goods, triggered an outrage.
The state has close to 1.39 lakh registered headload workers, according to officials with the Headload Workers Welfare Fund Board. These workers are affiliated with the various trade unions like the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), linked to the CPI(M), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), aligned to the Congress and BMS, which is connected to the BJP. The most powerful among the lot is the CITU, whose top leaders adorn key positions in the CPI(M). In addition to them there are around 10,000 scattered workers.

A contentious clause
The Headload Workers Rules, 1981, says that “No headload worker, who is not a registered headload worker under the provision of the headload workers rules shall be allowed or required to work in any area to which the scheme applies.” This is the main point used by the headload workers and unions to claim that no one else except for them are entitled to do loading and unloading works. But in the same chapter, the rules also specify that headload workers who are not permanently employed by an employer or the contractor shall be allowed to work in an area.
According to the Headload Workers Act, a ‘headload worker’ is a person engaged 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.”
As per the Rules, the areas where the Headload Workers scheme is applicable include markets and shops dealing in iron, steel, cloth, groceries, vegetables, railway yards and goods sheds, boat jetties, forest supply, firewood depots and quarries and meat markets. Neither the Act nor the Rules mention anything on the rights of headload workers to stop individuals or businesses from employing workers of their choice for loading and unloading work.
“One part of the law is being conveniently forgotten. Though there are provisions to deploy our employees for loading and unloading works, many of us still go through this registration procedure to get an identity card for them as these union workers create issues. Even after getting the labour card, we face problems with them,” says Shaju, a contractor who had faced issues in the past.
Recently, a shop owner in Perambra in Kozhikode had to face a protest by registered headload workers after he employed his own labourers. “I have the right to unload my goods using my labourers. I am already paying them a salary, why should I spend extra on union workers?” Biju CK, owner of CK Materials in Perambra told TNM, while the protest was happening. He had refused to negotiate with the headload workers.
Even individuals while moving homes sometimes face trouble from headload workers, though the law does not require them to engage the workers. When Prashanth, an employee with a private firm shifted from Ernakulam to Thiruvananthapuram, he was forced to pay Rs 2,000 to the headload workers, despite having enlisted packers and movers for the job. “They came out of nowhere and threatened me. When I called the police, they told me to give some amount and just solve the issue. I had to pay Rs 2,000 to the union workers to avoid further problems. They then unloaded a few items and left,” he said.

Unions feel the criticism is unfair
Headload workers feel that their right to work as per law cannot be taken away. “We are considered as goons. But we have been a part of this sector for many decades. I started this work when I was 19. I don’t know any other work and it is our right as per the law to work here, no one can deny it,” says Bhaskaran, a 52-year-old headload worker in Kozhikode.
The state president of CITU, Anathalavattom Anandan had reportedly told the media on February 24, 2022, that the High Court order obtained by the shop owner in Mathamangalam to clear the way for loading and unloading work by his employees was not acceptable to the trade unions in Kerala. He alleged that the verdict was against thE constitutional rights of the workers and said that CITU will not accept it.
Payyanur MLA TI Madhusoodanan, writing on his Facebook page, had supported the headload workers at Mathamangalam in Kannur and said they were being unfairly targeted.  “In Mathamangalam, the shop owner neglected the workers who are members of the Kerala Headload Workers Board and tried to deploy his own labourers, which resulted in the issue. Without considering the facts, the media, which had been maintaining an anti-labour mindset for the past several years, is continuing to criticise workers…They work hard day and night and sometimes are required to carry up to 75 kilograms of weight at a time,” he said in the Facebook post.

“They are extortionists not workers”
Professor KP Kannan, Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), who had done an extensive study on headload workers in Kerala three decades ago however feels that flaws in legislations are not the reason for the problems being created by headload workers. “It’s just an excuse,” he says. According to Kannan, the workers were used politically for spearheading strikes and agitations in the 1970s after Communist Party of India split into the CPI(M) and the CPI, and this made them powerful. “That’s how they became unquestionable. Neither the public nor the police couldn’t control them as they have strong political support. This is why they behave like extortionists and not workers. This support continues even now. Though successive governments tried to regularise these practices it wasn’t successful,” said Kannan who believes other trade unions followed a model set by the CITU, which is affiliated to the CPI(M). It became a social issue as political parties are not able to control the workers now. Kannan said there are lakhs of migrant labourers in the state who make a livelihood from similar work and it isn’t lack of employment that makes these workers stick on to headload. They wanted to be extortionists,” he alleged.
MK Haridas, an RTI activist and entrepreneur, feels that following severe criticism, the practice of ‘nokku kooli’ has declined. “But workers now take up work forcefully or just charge money saying it is their right. Trade unions created such rules to protect the headload workers alone. The employer’s rights are being ignored. Labour officers and other authorities also keep quiet due to political pressure. Thepolice often do not want to bother,” said Haridas.

Can the practice of ‘nokku kooli’ be ended
G Vijayaraghavan, Founder CEO of the Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram and a former member of the State Planning Board, believes the resolve of top politicians can certainly bring about change. “When the Chief Minister came to attend the inauguration of Techno City in Thiruvananthapuram, he strictly warned against the practice and after that there were no issues. A strong message should come from the top. It would certainly help if the law has more clarity,” he said.
KP Kannan too feels that political consensus is needed to weed out such anti-social behaviour. “Only the political parties and the government can end this,” said Kannan.
Edited by Binu Karunakaran

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