Nokkukooli (‘wages for looking’)
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Nokkukooli (‘wages for looking’)
Why Kerala pays wages for looking?
The extortionate practice
To avoid paying "nokkukooli", an absurd unionist wage ritual practised in Kerala, an American artist recently trashed a part of his work. But this practice of all-pay-no-work seems unlikely to end.
Real estate broker Mohammed K's business card has an interesting postscript — "expert in shifting household items". What his team actually does is look out for head loaders at street corners, waiting for mover trucks and vans to demand nokkukooli, translatable as "wages for looking".
Any Malayalee who has ever shifted home or even tried transporting a table in the last few decades knows of this Kafkaesque practice — nokkukooli is a payment made to head loaders affiliated to a union even if they haven't undertaken any work for you. Theoretically, all loading, unloading anywhere in the state is their prerogative and thus a wage has to be paid even if they don't handle the load.
So to be doubly sure, Mohammed and his team handle the shifting past midnight. Obviously, American artist Waswo X Waswo didn't have the team's expertise when he tried to get his work loaded for shipping after a collateral show for the Kochi Biennale wound up. "They asked for Rs 10,000 to move six boxes 10 feet from the truck. I had about 30 boxes. Just imagine the amount I would have had to shell out," he says.
In protest, Waswo destroyed some of his work, and the video clip of this has since gone viral.
High Court, government and politicians’ views
To be fair to local political parties and administration, the practice, which once affected just about every sector and individual, is on the decline. The CPM, when it was in power, had spoken out against the near-statutory status nokkukooli had acquired in the state. The Kerala high court, too, has asked the state government to treat it on par with extortion. But migrants and foreigners are still vulnerable.
In the wake of the Waswo incident, politburo member MA Baby tendered an apology. But others like CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran have always maintained that the issue is more complex and that nokkukooli should be seen as a compensation for job loss. Planning board member and chairman of labour welfare board, CP John, even blames the biennale management for not settling the labour dispute when the government had invested crores in the event.
"Nokkukooli has certainly given the state a bad name and this, in fact, is being used to repress many genuine cases of exploitation of workers. It also leads to a lack of investment in new ventures," says Dr Hari Lal of the Centre for Development Studies.
To its credit, the UDF government did initiate reformist measures like putting a transportation value on every household and commercial item, big or small. Anyone wishing to move material can now submit a list of items to the labour department and collect a receipt that can then be given to the local headloader.
"We have been able to curb this illegal practice to a large extent, but people have to come forward and use this facility," says labour minister Shibu Baby John who initiated the policy.
Riyas Komu, an artist and co-founder of the biennale, says that there are socio-economic issues that cannot be ignored. "Mechanization has eased out jobs, there is that dire need for a drink every evening, and asking for a share of booty for work you haven't done is easy," he points out.
2021/ Kerala HC declares it illegal
The Kerala high court said the illegal practice of headload workers’ unions demanding “nokkukooli (gawking charges)” for loading and unloading goods was “militant trade unionism” and added that the term “nokkukooli” should not be heard in the state from now on. It ordered the police to take stringent action against those making such demands regardless of their political affiliation.
The court of Justice Devan Ramachandran was considering a petition filed by a restaurant owner seeking police protection from unions demanding “nokkukooli”. The court declared that any demand for “nokkukooli”, or any similar demand by any person, headload worker or union is illegal and unlawful.
If the provisions of the Kerala Headload Workers Act are implemented properly, militant trade unionism would vanish as an employer who refuses to engage a headload worker would not face violence but statutory consequences as per the act, the court said.
Unions demand exorbitant amounts as “nokkukooli” from employers engaging their own workers, instead of union workers, for loading and unloading; they cite loss of work or lost wages on the strength of their right to work under the act.
No one is sure exactly when this practice began; it seems to have mushroomed out of the state's contradictory growth model. Despite great social indices, joblessness has been growing in the state, averaging 8% per annum, surpassing the national average but there is also a huge shortage of labour here.
A semi-skilled or manual labourer can earn around Rs 500-700 per day, the highest average daily wage in the country. Yet, the young Malayalee prefers to migrate to the Gulf, leaving behind an aging workforce protected by militant workers' unions.