The Kerala High Court has once again urged the police to take stringent action against "nokkukooli" (gawking wages) practised by the loading-unloading workers in the state.
The court has also directed that if an employer intends to pay nokkukooli to the workers, it should be through bank based on PAN and Aadhar cards. However, the extent to which such measures can be implemented in the state remains a major doubt.
Anyone who has ever lived in Kerala would have encountered the bizarre system of nokkukooli practised by the land's headload workers. Almost everyone in the social strata, irrespective of the rich or poor, dreads this practice as they are all affected equally.
Nokkukooli is essentially a method of extortion backed by trade unions in Kerala, under which wages are paid to loading-unloading workers for allowing householders or builders to load and unload their goods using machines or their own labour.
The practice has turned into a headload worker’s right over the years. Nokkukooli often enjoys a quasi-statutory status as it exists with the tacit support of major political parties in the state.
How nokkukooli works
The trade unions post 'lookouts' near every industrial zone or residential area in the state. When these lookouts spot vehicles carrying goods, they convey it to all available union members, who then arrive in large numbers to the place where the goods are to be unloaded.
The workers stake their claim for the work and demand exorbitant rates for carrying the load. If the employer is not willing to pay the same, they allow him to do the loading-unloading himself or engage workers and machines of his choice for the same, provided the trade union workers get their due too.
The employer loses out both ways as he will either end up paying the exorbitant wages demanded by trade union workers to carry out the job or make a double payment for the same work - one to the workers he hires to do the job and the other to the trade union workers for watching it (nokkukooli).
How nokkukooli exists despite court orders
The practice of collecting nokkukooli is still rampant in Kerala despite several courts in the state giving orders against it. Even the High Court had termed nokkukooli as hooliganism and, on various occasions, directed the police to curb it
However, the people in Kerala seldom resist nokkukooli because the trade unions have the backing of political parties. The workers often threaten and intimidate the employer if they resist paying the amount they demand.
The local police seldom intervene when a dispute between the employer and worker arises. Even when they intervene they push for an amicable settlement, mostly in favour of the headload workers, citing the land's norms.
Several leading politicians, including the current Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, had spoken against the practice of nokkukooli. However, with the political backing that trade unions enjoy, words seldom transpire into action.