Pay Us to Watch You Work

The tyranny of Kerala’s labour unionism reaches the doorstep of a former Communist CM’s relative
It happens
COMMON SIGHT: CPM leaders, including former CM VS Achuthanandan, at a protest in Kerala (Photo: CORBIS)

The trade union movement in Kerala has made impressive contributions towards the cause of labour rights, but even good things can be taken too far. One of the most glaring examples of the tyranny of trade unionism has been nokku kooli, a charge that head-load workers levy just to stand by and watch. Recently, nokku kooli was enforced on the relative of a leading figurehead of the CPM, former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan.

The nokku kooli system goes like this: a bunch of head-load workers in a particular area have the sole right to unload material from trucks. If the owner of the material insists on having it done by his own workers, or machines, he still has to pay them—just for ‘looking on’.

Achuthanandan’s nephew, G Peethambaran, recently unloaded six loads of rock pieces in his compound. “The rocks were brought in a tipper van and mechanically unloaded. Boys in the locality helped us carry the pieces to the construction spot. The final load came in a lorry which didn’t have mechanical unloading. Head-load workers of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) arrived to unload it,” he says. The CITU, incidentally, is a huge trade union affiliated to the CPM. Peethambaram is branch secretary of the CPM in Alappuzha. You would expect that relationship to save him from such extortion, but it didn’t. He says, “Seeing the earlier loads, the CITU workers demanded an additional amount of Rs 1,500. They said they have a share in each load, irrespective of who actually unloads it. Finally, I had to pay Rs 750 as nokku kooli.”

Peethambaran filed two complaints—one with the district collector and the other with the state CPM leadership. “We suspended two of them from primary membership of the party. The CPM will not tolerate this undesirable practice,” says CB Chandra-babu, the party’s district secretary in Alappuzha. The head-load workers had to give the money back to Peethambaran.

Nokku kooli has been banned by the Kerala High Court, but all major trade unions—the CITU, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and Indian National Trade Union Congress—encourage it. “Excessive mechanisation has resulted in the unemployment of labourers. The trade unions together [arrived at] a consensus that workers have to be paid compensation,” says K Pradeep, district joint secretary of the BMS in Alappuzha.