Will Kerala really put an end to 'gawking wages'? Not unless there is political will

Nookukooli is a practice supported by trade unions in Kerala where head load workers demand payment for merely watching the goods get loaded or unloaded.
 Will Kerala really put an end to 'gawking wages'? Not unless there is political will
Will Kerala really put an end to 'gawking wages'? Not unless there is political will
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The Kerala High court has once again cracked down on ‘Nookukooli’ or Kerala’s infamous gawking wages. The High Court has said that the malpractice by head load workers continued despite repeated government and legal orders against Nookukooli. The court has also given a strict warning to the Kerala police for not swiftly acting on several cases filed.

What is Nookukooli or Gawking wages?

Nookukooli is a practice supported by trade unions in Kerala where head load workers demand payment for merely watching the goods get loaded or unloaded, while industrialists or merchants or common householders use their own labor for the work. If the head load workers step in to unload/load the goods, the investors will have to pay through their nose for the service.

This isn’t the first time the Kerala High Court has asked the police or government to rein in an offense that was made a non-bailable offense years ago. But despite court diktats and government promises, instances of trade unions flexing muscles surface all the time.

The menace will never stop says industrialist Kochouseph  Chittilappilly. The founder of V-Guard was one of the first big industrialists in Kerala to have opposed Nookukooli.

“These head load workers are everywhere, they have unfurled in the nook and corner of the state. They plague on others for a living and are nothing less than the underworld goons in Mumbai. This is goondaism,” he told TNM.

Kochouseph explains why Nookukooli is still prevalent in the state. “Since trade unions are the controlling forces, the police cannot intervene as they are legally not allowed to interfere in matters concerning trade unions. These workers thrive under the protection of trade unions as most of the money made through Nookukooli goes to them. How many arrests are made against Nookukooli? Almost none. This is because I believe politicians are turning a blind eye towards it. Under such circumstances, a complete legal crackdown on Nookukooli is highly unlikely.” 

Political patronage has ensured that the system continues, alleges the industrialist.

“Nookukooli was brought in by the Communist parties when the state grappled with unemployment. As years went by political parties including BJP and Congress started using the head load workers as political weapons – an army of labors who are ready to do anything for the political party that they are affiliated to” added Kochouseph.

Kerala HC steps in

The Kerala High court in the light of the recent events has made it compulsory that all worker payment transactions can be made only though bank accounts. The workers will now have to provide Aadhaar and PAN cards for any transaction that’s involved. 

Earlier, Nookukooli was made a non-bailable offence as per court orders. The court had also ordered for immediate arrests of workers who interrupt the loading and unloading of goods using cranes.

The problem of Nookukooli

Almost every industrial zone and residential areas in the state is constantly watched by the trade unions. When a vehicle carrying goods is spotted, the message is swiftly passed among all the union members. In no time the workers would reach the place where the goods are to be unloaded. They will then either charge an exorbitant amount or demand payment for merely rolling their eyes while the goods are unloaded using cranes or in-house workers. 

A Malayalam Writer, Paul Zakaria, had once described Nokku Kooli as this:

"You are, say, moving house. The worker comrades demand a prodigious sum to load/unload; so you decide to do it yourself with help from friends. The comrades look on from a distance; when you’re done, they ask to be paid the demanded wages. If you don’t pay up, there is a bit of violence and you get hurt. The revolution in Kerala says the worker must be paid even if he doesn’t work. That is a kind of workers’ paradise even Marx did not anticipate."

Kerala has a migrant population of 2.5 million, i.e. migrant laborers form about 8% of the state’s population. And many find it ironical that native head load workers demand wages for merely looking on when the state desperately depends on workers from outside for physical labor.

A company in Thiruvananthapuram’s Techno Park was charged unreasonable wages by the head load workers. ‘The dispute happened when head load workers allegedly demanded Rs 70 instead of the government-fixed rate of Rs 25 to unload executive chairs. The dispute was settled after the head load workers agreed to unload at Rs 40 per chair. Again on Tuesday, the company brought 300 pieces of glass for which the workers demanded Rs 50 per piece. This was settled at a rate of Rs 8 per piece after the intervention of district labour officer’, reported TOI.

What is ironic is that this happened a year ago in 2016, in the state’s capital city Thiruvananthapuram, which had claimed to be Nookukooli free in 2011.

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